Telefon Tel Aviv: Map of What is Effortless

In recent days, you might have happened upon a brief but glowing review of the latest Telefon Tel Aviv full-length in Esquire of all places, or perhaps noticed the disc sitting atop Rolling Stone's recent ‘Hot List' in issue 941. If so, you might also have found yourself wondering whether the group hasn't sold out in a shameless bid for mass acceptance and commercial success, another once-promising experimental group desperately trying to escape the electronic ghetto. Such musings would be understandable, all things considered, but a single listen is probably all it should take to quell any doubts about the group's sincerity, for Map of What is Effortless is a marvelous fusion of electronica and soul.

Following upon 2001's acclaimed Fahrenheit Fair Enough, Map of What is Effortless finds Chicagoans Joshua Eustis and Charles Cooper broadening considerably their instrumental and stylistic palettes. Accompanied by guests like vocalists Damon Aaron and L'Altra's Lindsay Anderson, the 30-piece Loyola University Chamber Orchestra, and drummer Kevin Duneman, Eustis and Cooper dramatically expand their electronic style to incorporate R&B, and in doing so create a stunning hybrid one might call 'laptop soul.' It's a marvelously seductive recording of cinematic breadth, awash in emotional peaks, warm electric pianos, lush vocals, and swelling strings. Tracks typically move through contrasting dynamic passages of restrained verses and impassioned climactic choruses, “Nothing Is Worth Losing That” and “What It Was Will Never Again” cases in point. The disc's sequencing is carefully conceived, with six of the nine tracks featuring vocals, and pieces moving through contrasting styles, ballads alternating with uptempo and experimental tracks. The recording opens with an overture of sorts, “When It Happens It Moves All By Itself,” whose brief Rhodes intro quickly plunges the listener into a powerful strings and drums episode. On the second track, Eustis and Cooper fashion a tight electronic funk backing for Aaron's gorgeous vocal and the swelling strings on the beautiful ballad “I Lied.” It's an album peak, the melancholy mood in its verses boosted to soaring emotional levels in the choruses. “My Week Beats Your Year” is equally irresistible, with its massive funk rhythms overlaid by Anderson 's speaking voice and classic electric piano noodlings. One could easily imagine Tracey Thorn (Everything But The Girl) singing “‘Bubble and Spike” as it recalls that group's similar propensity for soul balladeering. In this case, Anderson 's multi-tracked singing creates a lovely warm tapestry of voices. The largely acoustic “At The Edge of The World You Will Still Float” ends the recording on a suitably forceful and majestic note.

Admittedly, some will bemoan the group's new direction, arguing that song-based structures, orchestral enhancements, and soulful vocalizing move the group too far away from experimental realms. Certainly that side of the group recedes on this recording, as only “What It Is Without The Hand That Wields It” qualifies as prototypical atmospheric electronica. Eustis and Cooper also seem to instrumentally recede into the background on many tracks, content to be the rhythmic foundation and cede the spotlight to the vocalists and strings, and the balance does tip a bit too much in favour of slower ballads, to such a degree that some songs verge on being labeled adult contemporary; another uptempo track in the vein of “My Week Beats Your Year,” for example, wouldn't have been unwelcome. But the incredible strengths more than compensate for these weaknesses. Map of What is Effortless is one of those special recordings where hearing it the first time can be an incredible experience. Little more is required in this case than to put it on, turn it up, and bask in its gloriously sensual sound.

February 2004