Art Department: The Drawing Board
Crosstown Rebels

It's hard to believe The Drawing Board is the debut album from the Art Department duo of No.19 label owner Jonny White and house legend Kenny Glasgow, given how polished and accomplished the album sounds (despite boasting over three decades of experience between them, being close friends, and key presences in the Toronto electronic music scene, the two only joined forces in the studio for the first time in 2009). It's a fabulous and highly anticipated collection that makes good on the promise of last year's “Without You” single, a club hit that introduced the masses to the duo's sexy vocal house style. Art Department's distinctive character is in part attributable to Glasgow's distinctive croon, but the clubby tracks hold up solidly on instrumental grounds too, in large part due to the songs' lithe basslines and synth-heavy arrangements. The concept driving Art Department is simple yet ingenious—the fusing of vocals with live DJing—and it's one White and Glasgow realize splendidly. The Drawing Board captures the duo updating generational influences (Detroit techno, Chicago house, soul, funk, and hip-hop) to create a thoroughly fresh and triumphant collection.

The album begins strongly with the ten-minute “Much Too Much.” After a slightly Latinized house pulse inaugurates the song, a powerful synth hook appears, the melancholy melody right away insidiously worming its way into one's mind, and then Glasgow's croon enters, his vocal's downcast spirit belied by rapturous lyrics (“From the moment you entered my life it was a dream come true”). Here and elsewhere, Glasgow and White masterfully fuse melody-based songcraft with clubby dance-funk elements, resulting in a marvelously realized hybrid. What makes the material stand out even more is that the duo accomplish that fusion with such seeming ease, despite the fact that other producers have struggled to do the same thing with less success. What results is a lethal combination: impossibly funky dance music crowned by melodies that immediately get under one's skin. Many of the tracks stretch out, two of them even hitting the ten-minute mark, yet never feel overlong, primarily because they're designed to evolve through multiple episodes and so never grow repetitive.

“Without You” is here, of course, and is none the worse for wear for being so. After an opening of syndrum showers, the rubbery bass line enters followed by Glasgow's plaintive voice and then the song's coup de grace, a hammering, unstoppable groove powered by snares that crack with the force of gunfire. Contrasting vocal colour is added to the album by the participation of guests such as Osunlade and Boston duo Soul Clap (who elevate the soul-funk of “We Call Love” to a higher plane) and Seth Troxler, who lends his presence to two cuts. He joins in on “Living the Life,” which includes a low-pitched vocal part that suggests some degree of affinity between the vocal dance music Art Department's producing and the kind Matthew Dear's been refining the past few years (such as on Black City), and the goth-house workout “Vampire Nightclub.” The high-pitched vocalisms floating above the intricate synth weave during “Roberts Cry” indicate that a little bit of Drexciya's DNA has seeped into Art Department's music too. And when the duo strips the vocals away, as it does during “What Does It Sound Like?,” for example, the funky bass lines and crisp groove take care of the rest.

May 2011