Sci-fi, space travel, and electronic music have long gone hand-in-hand, but leave it to two bearded Californians to take it up a notch and choose Captain Starlight—a fictional starship superhero from the mind of '70s German pop kook and cosmic rocker Frank Zander—as the chief object of their intergalactic romance. Collaborators for more than a decade, UK transplant Simon James (a.k.a. Woolfy) and Dan Hastie (a.k.a. Projections) have always taken things at a West Coast pace. 2008's The Astral Projections of Starlight debuted the duo's first cosmic excursions with the Captain as its muse, and to call the effort a breezy listen would be an understatement. Very much of the Balearic mold, the record was dominated by soft-rock guitars, tropical drumming, weightless atmospherics, slow-burning tempos in the 100- to 120-bpm range, along with song titles like "Sonic Systems" and "This Space." Four years later, James and Hastie have returned to Captain Starlight's universe and their blend of yacht rock, bearded disco, and Balearic house on The Return of Love.
For the most part, the duo's sophomore effort picks up right where its debut left off. Another airy, midtempo affair, the major shift, if any, is a return to Earth—for both the Captain and Woolfy vs. Projections. What little dissonance and gritty space debris there was previously has been largely burned up on the atmospheric descent, revealing an even cleaner record full of folksy falsetto singing, pristine funk bass, and a reverence for '70s light rock and '80s pop. These guys have basically fashioned themselves as the Hall and Oates of the dance world. "Nina," which features co-production from Hamburg boogie Maestro Tensnake, mixes a Latin-rock beat akin to something from Santana or War with the type of smooth synth work usually relegated to Steely Dan's studio. There's even the ballad "Cellophane," which loops up a BeeGees-style slow-mo-disco riff with layer upon layer of bright, sustaining tones—the musical equivalent of fireworks bursting in slow motion and fading together as they fall from the sky—and James lovingly chanting "return to me."
This is a record that flies in the face of almost every prevailing trend in current dance music. It's supremely chill and colored in pastel hues, and it's certainly not for everyone. But for listeners that can get down with its downtempo spin on things, there's much to like. "March of the Wizards" scores major points for the imagery its name conjures, and that's before the track unfolds with a Bonobo-like jazz-house beat, squawking trumpets, and a psych-rock sheen. Tracking away from the dominant organic vibe, "Set Me Loose" crackles with notes of minimal techno, leaving ample space for its star-lit cosmic meandering. The analog bass looms large, but the echoing piano, reverbed guitar soloing, and twinkling sonic chatter sounds as if it traveled from a long way out. One of the darker tracks on the record, it's a much-needed crack in the record's cotton-candy coating. So is "Chameleon's Tale," a brooding spoken-word piece set to a deep-space boogie.
But, as its name implies, The Return of Love is dominated by its softer side. It leads to an innocuous moment or two, like "Me and You" or "The Passage," tracks that go further to maintain the record's easy-going-disco-rock mentality than offer up anything substantial. A defiant record in its individualism, it's also one that strikes out in a disarmingly harmless fashion. Its blander additions aside, more often than not, Woolfy vs. Projection's latest proves to be a refreshing recess from the dancefloor, a lazy LP recorded in the Northern California woods that's as cozy as it is otherworldly.