Release Date: Aug 6, 2013
Record label: ADA
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, Alternative Dance, Left-Field House
Blondes’ self-titled debut album was one of 2012’s most striking releases. An electronic album rooted in a kind of swirling mechanistic spirit, the sounds didn’t come from traditional forms of dance culture. Yes, there were echoes of house’s rhythmic pulse and techno’s sense of propulsion, but these sounds were all filtered through the Brooklyn duo of Sam Haar and Zach Steinman’s idiosyncratic approach.
One of the more impossible things to write about is the album without lyrics. Without words, you don’t have very much that’s literal in meaning, and you’re dealing in primarily abstract territory. Writing about such music is, in a few words, a little like dancing about architecture. The thing with Brooklyn-based Blondes, a duo comprised of Zach Steinman and Sam Haar who are now offering up their second album Swisher, is that there’s not much dancing to be done—even by electronic music standards.
With their earlier work—particularly their 2011 run of EPs on RVNG Intl.—NYC duo Sam Haar and Zach Steinman built an ethereal sound that adopted the propulsive motion of techno without its strict rhythms or structures. Their bumpy textures lent them something of an outsider dance tag, but a disc full of remixes last year pulled them closer to the inner circle. The duo's new album, Swisher, further erodes that boundary.What makes Blondes different from conventional techno producers in the first place? For one, their tracks feel like they could go anywhere over the course of their runtime.
Despite my reluctance to use a stupid quote from a middling to decent film, listening to Blondes’ sophomore effort, Swisher, makes me think of the “hide your smiles and cries” approach Training Day’s Jake Hoyt takes to being a cop. The same can be said for the sophisticated, pokerfaced dance music that helmsmen Sam Haar and Zach Steinman have continued to excel at. Swisher dodges the slump by never allowing things to get too euphoric, too dark, or too overwrought.
It didn't seem like Blondes could distill their sound any further than they did on their self-titled debut album, which collected singles whose names wittily contrasted and resolved seeming opposites (Lover/Hater, Business/Pleasure) while delivering sleek tech-house that similarly balanced intricate sounds with an on-the-fly approach. Yet Sam Haar and Zach Steinman have done just that on Swisher, a set of subtler, richer tracks that expand on the duo's dialogue with momentum, texture, and melody. Those first two elements dominate most of the album, which might initially disappoint fans of Blondes' pop leanings, but Steinman and Haar use rhythm and percussion so deftly that these tracks are ultimately just as engaging as their debut's more tuneful approach.
Shooting people, time travelling and coining really cool catchphrases: the life of a T-800 model is tough. Every now and then they just need to relax, pick up a pina colada and let off a bit of steam. It’s not easy being a robot you know - just ask C-3PO the next time you see him. But what music would soundtrack a robot shindig? Kenny Rodgers? Pere Ubu perhaps? Slint? Not a chance.
It’s always 1992 in Sam Haar and Zach Steinman’s world, the ghosts of Underworld and Jaydee forever adding acid loops to minimalist techno and blowing our minds. The Brooklyn duo’s second album eases off on the Balearica of last year’s self-titled debut but is just as gorgeous, rippling a sad refrain over the propulsive drums of ‘Andrew’ and brightening ‘Elise’ with jaunty robot guitar. The emphasis is on soft, kinetic beats, with melodies pulled out of unpromising materials – discordant synths, laser pulses – and it’s one whacking great testament to what dance music can do with a bit of imagination.
Techno’s narrative of robot soul is music-mythologising at its most seductive and I suspect Brooklyn duo Blondes think about this myth. Last year’s self-titled collection of singles offered up tech-house (with the emphasis on the “house”) at its most unabashedly pretty, all glittering chime loops and warm basslines, and sometimes even the gentle nourishment of a piano vamp. Blondes ploughed this furrow so intently that it felt like a cohesive statement, and one that it was difficult to imagine the duo adjusting it-- let alone surpassing it-- any time soon.
Having spent now a good deal of time with Swisher, Blondes’ second album – but which could be their first, or third, depending… well, exactly! Having spent time with Swisher, I’m now left questioning everything about Blondes, especially what I loved most about them and their last record, a self-titled compilation of a trilogy of two track 12”s with extras. This is ultimately fitting, because the exceptional techno-house duo seemingly began work on Swisher by questioning everything about themselves. In Blondes’ previous work (glossing over a good-but-patchy EP on Merok), you could find transcendence – that almost literally seemed the point in those long, improvised live electronic pieces.
Judging from the second full-length album by Sam Haar and Zach Steinman as Blondes, these guys are the type that take apart the washing machine in their parents' basement just to see how it works. Where so many FruityLoops house producers attempt to squeeze out as much sound as they can compress, their waveforms looking like hotdogs, there's a knowing calmness at the core of Swisher. Each of the tasteful tracks on this record allows the listener room to breathe, to find their place in the mix, to sink in and float along to the progressive, deep house sound, rather than being forced to surf the face-punching edge of clipping.
As a counterpart to the “messy techno” Adam Harper describes in his essay for Dummy, a number of albums have quietly emerged in recent months that point the other way, towards the prettification of underground dance music. You’d expect velvety, colourful techno and house to be too polite to engage with on a meaningful (i.e. dancefloor) level, but done well, they’re anything but lightweight.