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One great thing about artists – real ones, not pop frauds - is their inherent desire to escape thesafety of established territories and seek out the uncharted. Map of What is Effortless, thesecond album by TELEFON TEL AVIV is a prime example of this. Two musicians locked upinside a computer labyrinth, looking for a new musical language to access their pleasure and pain, as Marvin Gaye and Björk records rock that labyrinth's PA. In creating their album, multiinstrumentalists
JOSHUA EUSTIS and CHARLIE COOPER, both 26, emptied their tanks running
that muse down. The result is one of the most surprising electronic records in recent memory.
Wanna call it Laptop Soul? Well, go right ahead.
Better yet: How about "gnarly hot bedroom R&B kind-of stuff, on a super-dark, dingy tip," which is what Eustis, the music school–educated, bedroom beats wiz calls it. The new album arrives on the heels of their playful 2001 debut Fahrenheit Fair Enough, and acts as a marker of their substantial artistic growth, showing just how far the two had traveled since their mid-'90s days as harbingers of thrash in the New Orleans industrial and punk circles.
Joshua Eustis and Charlie Cooper have known each other since high school, and became acquaintances in the Big Easy hardcore scene. According to Eustis, Cooper was the scene's "mover and shaker," fronting one of the city's most popular punk bands, while Josh was a selfdescribed "bedroom dork with a keyboard." Nevertheless, the two convened in '99, when Cooper began exploring electronics, and Eustis, now bored with his own set up, found the opportunity of
having a partner hard to pass up. "Charlie approached me, saying ‘let's crawl inside these tracks, crush our gear and see what comes out.'"
Demos resulted. Chicago-based HEFTY Records got excited. Simultaneously, Danny Lohner of Nine Inch Nails, had played Eustis and Cooper's tape for Trent Reznor. The same week, Eustis and Cooper found themselves in a New Orleans studio working on music for NIN's Things Fall Apart remix project. Taking on the surrealistically named Telefon Tel Aviv -- a "half-awake, halfasleep
play on words" Josh came up with one morning – the duo signed with Hefty. (Together and separately, Eustis and Cooper have since worked on remixes for A Perfect Circle and Eminem, collaborated with Chi-town electronic pop figures L'Altra and Pulse Programming, and worked on the scores of films such New Port South and Underworld).
Their first release with Hefty was Fahrenheit Fair Enough, an impressionist travelogue that combined techno's scientific melodicism with a mixture of jazz-head instrumentation and digital manipulations. The songs drifted towards a luminescent blissful sky, not sure where (or if) they'll be coming down.
Having made the move out of New Orleans to Chicago in 2002, TTA decided to approach the new record by, in Cooper's words, "building a skeleton in our minds of what we want." Listening to classic records they both admired—Gaye's Here My Dear, Prince's 1999, NIN's The Downward Spiral, Curtis Mayfield's Sweet Exorcist -- helped them come up with a game-plan for an album that "implemented electronics, song-writing, live playing, and a huge production, [but was] also a
pop record.” So for the next year, through a brutal winter that turned their basement apartment into a dungeon, Eustis and Cooper pursued their vision with a single-mindedness that bordered on self-destructive. "We were completely disconnected," says Cooper of the period. "At one point, we we're ready to pack it all up, and go home to New Orleans, and get our lives back in order so we could finish [the album] properly. Our lives were completely fucked, because we had
totally ignored them." Adds Eustis, "It was malignant by that point.” Of course, they do say the darkest hour is right before the dawn for a reason. And that one's soul and blues emerge during the moment in between.
Map of What is Effortless paints the most natural colors possible. Like all good adventures, this one’s diverse, from the Ron Isley-like vocals of L.A. songwriter Damon Aaron and the detached chanteuse musings of L'Altra vocalist Lindsay Anderson, to the juxtaposition of the Loyola University Chamber Orchestra with synthetic percussion. The title track, a gorgeous ambient orchestral piece, slips into a sexy electronic soul tune, "Nothing Is Worth Losing That," whose
lyrics contemplate the dark place Eustis and Cooper were in at the time of recording. Heavy shit for a couple of laptop R&B fanatics from the Bayou. Lightness comes in the form of "My Week Beats Your Year," a bit of Princely robo-funk adorned with Anderson's spoken-word brag, while "I Lied," anchored by Aaron’s vocal about long-developing situations, sounds like a Dirty South Morr Music remix. "What It Is Without The Hand That Wields It" shows them in a dark atmospheric mode, aware that a move to Chicago brings them to the spiritual home of industrial music.
If anything, the album makes it clear that the duo’s shift from the lithe sounds of their earlier efforts was a natural expansion of their own artistic boundaries. Map of What is Effortless is Telefon Tel Aviv’s sketch of branching out from what they knew and cornering their muse with gorgeous results. Great art indeed.