Tomas Barfod, better known as the drummer of Copenhagen's WhoMadeWho, is enamored with beats and solid pop hooks in equal measure. While WhoMadeWho is being sucked into an LCD Soundsystem–shaped vacuum, the market for Barfod's own productions is less clear. He aspires to the sensation of timelessness that defines pop while availing himself of production cues drawn from house and the overtly exploratory hip-hop associated with LA's Brainfeeder as well as new home Friends of Friends. Barfod's also a recent LA transplant, and calls on labelmates and locals like Shlohmo and Salva provide backup—and a new context—in the form of remixes and shared bills.
The saline lake after which the album is titled is a few hours' drive from Barfod’s new home base. And Salton Sea indeed comes across as particularly companionable road-trip music—energetic enough to get you there, pretty enough to keep you receptive. Throughout Salton Sea, reposeful, yet active instrumental tracks alternate with vocal cuts that play housey rhythms against nuanced, sensitive singing from a few collaborators, including bandmate Jeppe Kjellberg. But the qualities that make for an enjoyable and practical listen in private terms also need to be dealt with in public, to test their mettle in less favorable contexts.
It’s interesting to listen to Salton Sea in light of Barfod's work in the shadowy production trio Jatoma, who released a self-titled album on Kompakt two years ago. Without being ambient per se, the album sounds like an apotheosis of the off-gassing sounds of the label's Pop Ambient series: minimal techno unspooling in pretty loops and brisk pads, set to a beat that undercuts its yoga suitability. The album's durable thrills came in the form of rickety transitions and improvisational swerves that threatened to lose momentum while secretly consolidating it.
The feeling that, underneath the surface, the music is conveying something urgent is mostly absent on Salton Sea. Lead single "Broken Glass" perfects Jatoma's unlikely pivot maneuver, not necessarily for the better. "Broken Glass" works its courage up over a series of struggling choruses before going full-on electro in its final stretch. The cut from one mode to the other positions it more as a coda, however, where Jatoma embodied the intoxicating swirl of a DJ's unexpected, but apt transition. Barfod has fine-tuned changes like these in the intervening two years, and these reorientations feel less like victories or close calls as a result. It makes for a more seamless experience, helping and hindering its cleanly produced tracks in equal measure. Giving its roster of guest vocalists a stable groove is a clear priority here, but that focus also keeps the music from getting risky or big. Salton Sea's most club-ready moment comes in the form of "November Skies," pairing a lopsided and unrelenting beat that pulls the body-music strings with Nina Kinert emoting on top.
Salton Sea is good, but ultimately doesn’t leave as strong an impression as it intends. Barfod's development has found him in a kind of no-man's land between dance music and pop, an in-between that—as his work with Jatoma showed—can be a great platform for experimentation and unlikely wins. That delight in upending expectations, already pretty low-key, more or less evaporates on Barfod's solo LP. What's left is beautifully produced, but lacking the details to give that beauty depth and reward close attention. This might be a good one to have around for your next long drive, otherwise it might be more interesting to wait and hear how Barfod settles into his new surroundings and crew.