Arriving almost exactly two years after Teengirl Fantasy's debut full-length, Tracer is as much an indication of the pair's progression as it is the pace at which the electronic-music spectrum has moved forward in that time span. Where 7AM had its share of chillwave remnants and hints of a Balearic touch—the subdued textures and hazy sonics very much in line with production tendencies of the time—the duo's sophomore album is stunningly crisp and bright, decisively hi-fi, and expertly sculpted. Still, to imply that Teengirl Fantasy has fit perfectly within the moving trends of the underground electronic-music world is misleading. In fact, the pair of Oberlin graduates has always seemed set on at least spinning the tropes of the day on their sides, if not bucking them almost entirely while nonetheless remaining completely relevant. Tracer continues in that vein, pulling inspiration from sources often deemed off limits by the outfit's contemporaries and yet managing to craft an album that not only appropriately fits, but outright succeeds within the current electronic-music spectrum.
Tracer brings Teengirl Fantasy's affection for '80s-era, computer-based new age to the forefront more than ever before. Where its debut would bathe the keyboard-generated choir pads and pan-flute patches in murky reverbs, this LP sees those same tones placed much more towards the front of the mix, utilizing a sound palette akin to a modernized Art of Noise. In the same way, the duo's love of '90s R&B and freestyle is clearer than ever, often being heard in both the tones and corresponding patterns impressed on the drums, along with the occasional Jimmy Jam-esque bass slide. But despite these somewhat kitschy points of inspiration, Tracer is an album executed with seriousness and intelligence, and although it is never outright contemplative, the record is never jubilant either.
The six instrumentals here serve as the backbone of the record, and although the sonic aesthetic has been updated since 7AM, these tracks take a similar shape to their earlier counterparts in the sense that they are presented more as journeys than straight-up songs. The opening "Orbit" wraps one of the pair's familiar formulas in a digital upgrade, laying trickling arpeggios and warm pads atop punchy toms and a tricky half-time skitter. The pair even succeeds in its attempt to include a drumless excursion with "End," a lush, piano-driven ambient piece that builds and decays in engrossing movements. Songs like "Eternal," "Vector Spray," and "Timeline" push towards the dancefloor, at times sounding like a friendlier, less detuned Lone. While these instrumental efforts may not account for the most memorable moments that Tracer has to offer, they are largely captivating from beginning to end and serve as the best examples of how far Teengirl Fantasy's production talents have come.
With the exception of the Panda Bear-featuring "Pyjama"—an underwhelming outing that accounts for the record's only real slide into overindulgence—the vocal-based songs heard on this LP are truly exceptional. First, Los Angeles vocalist Kelelam contributes a gorgeous performance to "EFX," which benefits from a thorough arrangement of harmonizing and pattern-forming vocal layers and an acute sense for dynamic range displayed by both Kelelam and the track at large. Later on, Laurel Halo's soaring, weightless voice accompanies "Mist of Time," adding an ethereal touch to the otherwise inviting and floaty tune. And lastly, the instantly recognizable stylings of Romanthony take the front seat on "Do It," belting out potentially tounge-in-cheek dance-music clichés (lines like, "I've got the feeling in the club tonight/And if you feel it you know it's alright/Let's come together/Explode/It's now or never/Ready set go"), which combine with the pop-minded organ stabs for Tracer's most boisterous song. Still, "Do It" never propels into overdrive and proves to be another example of Teengirl Fantasy's knack for implementing smart—but catchy—vocal arrangements into its artsy electronic music.
In some ways, Tracer goes in the opposite direction taken by most groups still finding their feet in the current electronic-music climate. As many outfits move towards crafting more club-oriented music with time, Teengirl Fantasy seems comfortable staying outside of that realm. True, Teengirl's music is definitely inspired by and surely not inappropriate within the club-music context, but this LP comes without any "big tunes" or surefire dancefloor tracks. Instead, these are compositions, tracks that are ceaselessly adventurous and without question well crafted; in truth, they may even be a bit risky. That said, Teengirl Fantasy's lofty artistic inclinations have yet to steer the duo awry, and have yielded creatively unique results across two full-lengths.