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Todd Terje - Remaster of the Universe

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Artist: Todd Terje

Album: Remaster of the Universe

Label: Permanent Vacation

Review date: Jul. 27, 2010


Antena - "Camino Del Sol (Todd Terje Remix)" (Remaster of the Universe)


It’s as easy to like Todd Terje as it is to dislike him, but does anyone love or hate him? According to the space disco producer’s press release, his edits and remixes “instantly made industry types and clubbers alike go bananas,” and in this statement there’s a hidden truth that illuminates the main problem his work. The placement of industry types in front of clubbers suggests a set of priorities that values marketability over content, and although it’s likely nothing more than an editing oversight, it rings true. The edits, remixes and “re-re-edits” (apparently he has remade much of his back catalogue, for reasons I cannot fathom) included in his double disc collection, Remaster of the Universe, are nothing if not a consistent, consumable package, as breezy and fun as they are unadventurous and boring. Listening to it, I couldn’t really imagine dancing, but I could easily conjure the image of a conference room full of industry types “going bananas,” imagining all the dough they could make off some edits and remixes.

So what to do with Terje? Like fellow Scandinavians Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas, he trades in a slow-burning strain of disco that blurs the boundaries between soft rock, dub, club, tropicalia, kraut and other bit players in the epic saga of funk. It’s a grand tradition that can be traced back to David Mancuso’s formative loft parties, a sort of ground zero for disco, where The Temptations were played next to recordings of African Drumming and boogie rock b-sides. Then we go way over to Italy, where in the mid-1980s “cosmic disco” became a fully articulated idiom, and back to L.A., where DJ Harvey and Lovefingers keep the flame alive today. In the past decade, Norway and Sweden have become hubs of their own, in no small part because of Terje. But just because someone is popular doesn’t mean they’re any good, and where his cohorts succeed, Terje plainly fails; where Lindstrom projects layers of sweat and frank sexuality, Terje keeps things polite and demure. And where Thomas constructs his tracks in a goofy weed haze, Terje seems content to sip Bacardi by the pool, ever the spitting image of parent-approved relaxation. There’s nothing wrong with chilling out, but where his music could stray a little, could bump up against its own walls or change the pattern a touch, he keeps things under control, with soft edges and an affable spirit.

On Remaster, the formula becomes quickly apparent and hardly changes. Vocals and synthesizers carry the melody while loose, cheesy guitar or slap bass sets the overall mood. Traces of ‘80s cop-show chords dive in and out around Giorgio Moroder-informed arpeggios, giving the whole thing an aura of the lost classic. Terje surely relishes that moment when ‘70s analogue production gave way to the digital ‘80s, when bands suddenly had ridiculously beefed-up snares and tons of chorus on their guitars. Largely lamented as the end of “classic” production techniques, a listener with open ears can nonetheless find a plethora of strangely beautiful records, albums or singles where the roughness of first-wave digital gear gives an alien quality to what might have been some bog-standard material. But in the midst of all this nostalgia, Terje mixes in some modern touches to keep everything club-friendly. The kick drum especially is always nice and full, a thick, punchy tool, and the snares dial back the Phil Collins thunder to give the songs a 21st century drive. Also, I’m pretty sure every song has pair of tuned congas on it.

Thus, whether listening to the first disc, a DJ mix of much of his material, or the second, which includes full tracks, it’s surprisingly easy to lose one’s place. The whole thing blends and drifts, and nothing leaps out enough to startle. The cover of “All That She Wants” might elicit a chuckle, and the vocals on M’s “Pop Music” might make you double-check the liner notes to see if it’s the Talking Heads, but otherwise each mellow jam floats calmly into the next. Surely this is no high crime, but neither does it pull you in.

I was talking with a friend the other day, a techno producer who has been making tracks for over a decade, about the difference between using hardware (drum machines, synthesizers) and software (computer programs with banks of sounds), a hot topic in the world of dance music. He was musing about why it is that hardware consistently sounds, in his words, so much harder. Some people have attributed it to the concrete reality of circuitry, but he offered the more reasonable theory that with gear comes some inherent flaws in mixing, that you cannot automate every tiny change to be at exactly the right volume all the time. I don’t know how Terje makes his tracks, but I would bet good money that he’s using a laptop; everything sounds exactly right.

Unfortunately, this means that the whole sounds wrong, that there’s nothing much to react to. It’s not just in his approach to mixing, it’s in his choice of instrumentation, in his witty little asides and accents, and his overall sense of dynamics. Terje aims to please, and he succeeds. But in his success, he offers up nothing more than a pleasant product. The best disco exalts, but a true celebration must come with the bitter memory of suffering. Even the more simple fun of partying eludes Remaster — no one’s going to get out of hand when this music is playing. There’s a remix on the second disc (in his word, a “Beach House Mix,” not to be confused with the similarly-polite indie band) of “Life’s a Beach!” by the group Studio that says it all. Like all the others, it washes over you, nice and calm, and then leaves without leaving much of a trace. I can imagine Studio and Terje at the beach house, wearing expensive sunglasses, sipping drinks and wondering why everybody doesn’t live like this.

Life is wondrous, but it’s no beach. At the end of the day, all that Terje has given us is an incipient diversion from our daily toil, but no release. That’s fine, but nothing to go bananas over.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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