On their 2001 debut, Fahrenheit Fair Enough, Telefon Tel Aviv's Josh Eustis and Charles Cooper pioneered a sort of amniotic electronica. Reverberating synth washes, gurgling glitch beats and rich bass tones floated by, liquid and enveloping, reminding me of the nine months I spent in my mother's uterus. At its best, the album's fetal IDM was creative, warm and moving, an immaculately produced and less clinical take on some of Tortoise's more ambient moments. At other times, it was repetitive and overly familiar, and the combination of chaotic glitch and relaxed chord clusters occasionally came across as ill-conceived and awkward.
Map of What is Effortless capitalizes on the strengths of Fahrenheit, eschews some of its less successful traits and expands its sonic palette considerably. Opener "When It Happens It Moves All by Itself" still features plenty of quirky laptop gimmickry, but the skittering beats are used texturally, wafting through the track rather than defining it. A reliance on blissed-out jazz harmonies threatens to push tracks like "Nothing is Worth Losing That" into trite chill-out territory, but tasteful string arrangements and subtle production flourishes keep the album from teetering over the edge.
The addition of vocals to an album like Effortless is a dangerous prospect -- most singers aren't accustomed to working with ambience and texture, Telefon Tel Aviv's stock in trade. Vocalist Damon Aaron's wispy tenor is competent enough, but his laid-back neo-soul phrasings don't hold up against the dramatic orchestral crescendo of "I Lied." Aaron's monotone cooing is better suited to the head-bobbing verses of "Nothing is Worth Losing That," but once again he doesn't generate any heat during its climactic chorus.
The songs with Lindsay Anderson fare much better. With an ethereal, Dido-esque tone, Anderson's voice perfectly complements the hypnotic sonorities of "Bubble and Spike." Even better is her languid, spoken kiss-off on the club-worthy "My Week Beats Your Year," which sounds like the monologue that Kim Gordon has always wanted to record. It's sexy, cocksure and totally punk rock, one of the best things about the album.
Still, the production is the star here, and it satisfies on every level. Eustis and Cooper are capable of creating dense, rhythmically cluttered digital soundscapes, as they do toward the end of "What It Is Without the Hand That Wields It," but they are just as comfortable letting the sound masses of the instrumental title track float in sonic space, growing and receding without a single break-beat to interrupt their fluid beauty.
This is the album's greatest strength -- Telefon Tel Aviv knows when to let a simple melodic motif, an atmospheric swell of sound or a gradual shift in texture and dynamic level speak for themselves. They balance their captivating sonic manipulations with passages that resonate with emotional heft. In doing so, they have created an album that is at once claustrophobic and expansive, detached and intimate, experimental and totally accessible.