It's been a whirlwind two years for Toronto-based new-school house duo Art Department. In that stretch of time, the pair has put out four singles and The Drawing Board, its critically acclaimed debut LP. Through that span, Art Department has created a dark musical world that reflects the seedy underbelly of nightlife, portraying it as a pleasure zone lost in the excess and abandon of a month spent below the surface on ketamine. Druggy to the extreme, their music is a patchwork of dark basslines, out-of-tune vocals, and an arrangement style that emphasizes length and atmosphere over movement and tightness. Perhaps it's this last reason that some of Art Department's strongest moments come when the group hands the controls over to someone else. A prime example of this was last year's "We Call Love," which featured total reworks by Daphni (a.k.a. Caribou) and DJ Harvey, both of which injected a sense of momentum that was missing in the original recording. Now, with "Touch You Gently," the duo's latest on Crosstown Rebels, Art Department is back with a two-track single that seems to bear this out once again.
The single's a-side is the titular "Touch You Gently." Clocking in at a little over 10 minutes, it's a standard Art Department production that brings to mind the outfit's first single, "Without You." Per usual, singer Kenny Glasgow wails a dirgish line over a low bassline, swirling Rhodes chords, and sparse, clap-heavy percussion. Yet, unlike "Without You," it drags on for a good seven minutes before finally settling into a loose groove. Even then, the track never finds a footing to justify its length. Similarly, Kenny Glasgow's vocals just don't hold up on such a long cut, as his sloppy and creepy pleas of "Let me touch you gently" become grating with repetition. Granted, previous Art Department tracks have revolved around playing with the boundaries of tonality, but in this instance, it's just too much.
Thankfully, the failings of the a-side are nullified by Brennan Green's excellent b-side remix of The Drawing Board album cut "Tell Me Why." Like previous Art Department remixers, Green works effectively as an outside influence coming from a place far removed from gloomy tech house. Fittingly, he draws on his experience in New York's disco and house community to craft a mix that blends the original's futurist sound palette with heavily reverbed layers of crashing pianos and a dancefloor-friendly rhythm dominated by busy hi-hat work. It's a breezy and dubbed-out cut, but one that, unlike the a-side, never feels as though it's overstayed its welcome. Perhaps another remixer will eventually work some similar magic with "Touch You Gently."