We're rounding the bend of 2013 and the current of R&B-inflected pop and electronic fare is flowing strong: the past month has seen variations on the theme from Portland-based Shy Girls, Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth, and LA’s Skin Town, not to mention Fade to Mind ingenue Kelela. Shadowy producer duo Jensen Sportag, who jumped into the spotlight on upstart label Cascine with 2011's Pure Wet EP, have picked this moment to return with their proper label debut. The resulting album, Stealth of Days, feels like it was long in gestation, boasting vibey composition reminiscent of both semi-serious MIDI freaks Ford & Lopatin, whose 2011 album Channel Pressure made a case for nostalgia’s catalytic power on the imagination, and the slinky atmospherics of producer Dev Hynes.
For a group that rode in on the heels of chillwave, this is an opportune moment, as every millennial-targeted chain retailer in the nation scours the internet for music that sounds like The Weeknd but won't stir up any of those pesky accusations of misogyny. And Jensen Sportag's messages are very nebulous indeed, functioning something like a fractured memory of 90s R&B—the lyrics, where you can pick them out, are comprised mostly of near-staple phrases like “how does it feel?”, “stay in my arms,” and “falling down.” Over the wash of emotionally saturated chord progressions, they sound appropriately evocative, like wispy echoes of days spent discovering life via car radio.
The closer they get to a strong song structure, the better they sound—album closer “Blood Hourglass” contains a few stirring harmonic changes that suggest Provision-era Scritti Politti, and “Rain Code,” the album's first single, takes a foundation reminiscent of this year’s Ciara stunner “Body Party” and reconstructs it in the form of 90s glitch. But in other spots, the moodiness starts to outweigh the framework, and it doesn’t help that the overall feeling of Stealth of Days is a little bit melancholy. The title of “Falling Doves” alone illustrates the album’s overarching ambiguity.
So who exactly are these guys? Ostensibly named after a Danish tennis pro (they seem content with the information vacuum about their possibly fictional namesake), they post pictures of mushrooms, trillium, and other types of forestation on their Facebook page and offer sparse biographical information. Cascine, an imprint that sprang from founder Jeff Bratton’s love for the indie pop coming out of Swedish labels Service and Sincerely Yours, is the perfect place for a couple of sentimental mystic pranksters, and Jensen Sportag seem to revel in a New Age-y ethos of non-judgment.
Emerging from this aura of mystery, Stealth of Days' primary weapon is actually its pristine sound quality—mixed by the duo with mastering help from legend Rashad Becker, it's all watercolor washes and gently aerated textures, a warm fuzzy blanket for the ears. Like a blanket, it has dips and folds of varying shapes, lending itself to the duo’s playful approach to surveying their favorite genres—but also like a blanket, you might not want to make it the main event of your night. However pleasing to the ear, Stealth of Days also has a deadening nostalgia to it, an effect exaggerated by its stop-start pacing. The thick swashes of sighing vocals create an effect of sluggish uniformity, leaving its heart inaccessible, like a meditation tape suspended in a swirl-dyed vat of gelatin.
If Jensen Sportag intended to create a boutique version of their musical influences and amplify it into an immersive experience, then they’ve succeeded. But the end result is not unlike a spa, where a respectful distance from the clientele dictates the effectiveness of every design element, from the sauna to the chairs to the lighting.