Telefon Tel Aviv were never the kind of electronic act that interested me. Their music was too background and their personalities too low profile for me to get very excited about their admittedly technically solid output.
Then I saw them at this year's Decibel Festival. Live, the duo of Joshua Eustis and Charlie Cooper resized their microtonal bedroom IDM for the masses, unleashing a set that arced from quirky noodling to broken funk, all built with crisp, digital clicks and swollen bass. It was a satisfying showcase, relying more on their early instrumental work than their more-recent vocal efforts and downplaying the I in IDM just enough to get people moving. (I'm sure this has been mentioned before, but can we dispense with the IDM tag already? Its assertion of intelligence seems as deeply flawed and contentious as emo's claim to feeling. Who's more emotional? Who's more intelligent? Please.)
That their performance hewed more to the glitchy scribbling of their debut, Fahrenheit Fair Enough, is not a bad thing. Though perhaps not a landmark record, Fahrenheit is at least an enjoyable study in restrained laptop instrumentalism. The story goes that Eustis and Cooper sent out only one demo and only to their eventual home, Chicago's Hefty label, because they were so certain it was where they belonged. And indeed, their debut album fits nicely next to Savath & Savalas on the label's roster. The record seamlessly integrates organic elements into glitchy digital constructions; acoustic guitars and Rhodes pianos hover lazily around inhuman drum drills and stuttering samples.
With their sophomore album, Map of What Is Effortless, Telefon Tel Aviv took some major risks in an effort to avoid stagnation, moving away from their established sound to take on vocal collaborations and more song-oriented production. The result is a divisive record containing just traces of Eustis and Cooper's skills in song after song of what essentially amounts to cleverly produced but ultimately weak adult contemporary. The instrumental track "What It Is Without the Hand That Wields It" stands out as a reminder of what the group is capable of when not weighed down by unimaginative vocals, though it is the exception.
But damn, their live set! Their showing at Decibel was literally poetry-inspiring (check Trent Moorman's gonzo Line Out review)—a perfect blend of technical prowess and empathetic attention to the crowd. I'm sure Decibel's impressive audio-visual setup helped, but Telefon's performance was a thoroughly overwhelming experience. Their sounds were blown up to epic proportions, and their catalog was mutated by skillful improvisation. It was infinitely more engaging than either of their albums.
Maybe Telefon Tel Aviv should just cut a live record already.
THURSDAY DECEMBER 14
The image that comes to mind when listening to KJ Sawka is that of a cartoon octopus playing the drums. (Possibly the octopus is wearing a tie, possibly the octopus is evil.) In reality, Sawka only has the ordinary number of human limbs, but he exercises them with superhuman ability, triggering samples and pounding skins with impressive dexterity and rhythm. When Sawka says "live drum 'n' bass," he means business. With Dirty Steve, B2B, Smart Bomb. Last Supper Club, 124 S Washington St, 748-9975, 10:30 pm, free, 21+.
FRIDAY DECEMBER 15
Trance, as a scene, has come to resemble trance as a musical style—seemingly endless, repetitive variations all building toward nothing. Trance is going nowhere, but it goes and goes and goes. Within this insularly uninteresting genre, George Acosta is apparently a heavy hitter, scoring a respectable 59th position in DJMag's list of top DJs, releasing plenty of mixes, and competently delivering the predictable 4/4 thumps and arpeggios that his fans must certainly expect. With Johnny Monsoon, Jason LeMaitre. Element, 332 Fifth Ave N, 441-7479, 10 pm, $10/$15, 21+.
SATURDAY DECEMBER 16
Everyone's favorite anarchist world-beat mulcher, Filastine, performs tonight at CHAC's "Buckaroo Blowout Extravaganza" (complete with mechanical bull), a farewell party for a production team called Inertia Labs. The context is perhaps absurd, but Filastine is nothing if not a highly adaptable performer. His global ghetto blasting should have no trouble overcoming that bull and turning that place into a wild post-world dance party. As on his recent Soot Records release, Burn It, expect diverse tongues and tempos to get real down and dirty in his polyglot melting pot. With Mux, Rain, Swank, Novatron, Manx. CHAC, 1621 12th Ave, 388-0569, 9 pm, free, 21+.