It’s up to the listener to decide how to feel about the moments when Telepathe’s music shows strain. Of the nine songs on their Dave Sitek-produced debut LP, Dance Mother only one (“Lights Go Down”) demands more of the listener’s attention than the music actually delivers. The album’s opening tracks, “So Fine” and “Chrome’s on It,” are its best-known. Internet-tested, they offer reliable surplus enjoyment, but deeper cuts like “In Your Line” and “Can’t Stand It” find the band successfully stretching its limbs. The territory the Brooklyn duo of Melissa Livaudis and Busy Gangnes stake out for themselves here annexes a modest portion of mainstream hip hop, though the Cash Money worship built into “Chrome’s On It”’s pitched-down stutter-snares sounds quaint.
Hip hop doesn’t provide an exoskeleton for these songs but a sort of general-knowledge soundbank. There’s nothing martial or aggressive about “Chrome”’s snares, and after the initial moment of recognition passes, the looped, stretched-out sounds take on a woozy, undulating appeal that’s equal parts Cocteausish vowel smears and screwed-down languor. So Telepathe’s use of hip hop sources is an idiosyncratic but galvanizing one in their history as a band: their early Farewell Forest EP (2006, The Social Registry) is directly tied to Livaudis’ work in the scrappy First Nation, later Rings. The obvious improv signifiers have been expunged in the Telepathe of Dance Mother, though the music retains its sense of intuitive, non-verbal communication between Livaudis and Gangnes.
The strain I mentioned earlier is not a way of accusing the band of dubious appropriation – whatever borrowings are here are done thoughtfully and without condescension. It’s Livaudis’ voice, rather, that at times sounds stretched thin over the bass-heavy chiaroscuro production style on the aforementioned “Lights Go Down.” The song sounds like an early attempt to build a complete song out of playing around with a drum machine. A similar programming gambit made for the best song on Telefon Tel Aviv’s Immolate Yourself (R.I.P.), but Livaudis’ singing emphasizes the song’s choppiness and attenuates a last-minute chorus: “the hunt, the winners, the hunt, the givers.” Livaudis’ voice is already watery and translucent, and it’s better served and more serviceable when the songs tend towards shoegazey swirl, as on the album’s most uncomplicatedly emotive track, “Can’t Stand It.”
It might be easy to accuse the band of opportunism, or a certain brand of perverse pretension given their association with Sitek, and the way their music’s obviously informed by Hot 97 might call to mind Dirty Projectors’ use of melisma. Outside of facile associations, Telepathe make compelling music and in contrast to many of their peers, have clearly taken the time to learn their software. Their gentle but deliberate way with melody can come across as hesitant at first, but just beneath the surface is a band that’s as fascinated by investigating pop music’s structures as sound-qua-sound. It’s something many bands lay claim to, but few actually pull off with this kind of attention to detail. That their reach exceeds their grasp so infrequently is bonus.