On synthwave producer Duett’s new album, Borderline, there isn’t a misstep from the first second to the last. From the instrumentals to the vocal songs, every breezy, relaxed, and washed out decision resonates.
Duett’s colorful 80s-inspired soundscapes are large spaces with serenity baths, and big, pink synthesizers with laid-back grooves. There are crystalline synthesizer pads and nuanced solos to help smooth out Duett’s chilled-out brand of sophisti-pop.
Last year’s Horizon album had its notable moments, but with Borderline Duett has upped the ante considerably. There’s more nuance and more growth. With nods to Roxy Music and Spandau Ballet, Duett’s making an earnest effort to expand a sonic palette and thereby put other similarly-situated synthwave acts on notice about the dangers of the status quo.
For starters, the two-fer of “Running Scared” and “Julienne,” written with Stewart Lockwood, who also sings, are bona fide pop songs that would have been on the soundtracks of any number of popular films in the 80s. I’m thinking these films are less John Hughes and more adult fare starring the likes of Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, or Michael Douglas.
On “Scared,” Lockwood’s emotional vocals soar over Duett’s ethereal synth musings and syncopated drum machines. It’s a vast and triumphant song that somehow manages to be almost equally as intimate. It’s a powerful standout on this record.
On “Julienne,” though, Lockwood and Duett slow things down for an airy, smooth number only a few shades removed from the work of Spandau. The tender ode to some woman has warm atmospheric synthesizers and muted and delicate electric guitars over a lovely dinnertime groove. Lockwood’s breathy delivery is a perfect pairing here. The tenderness persists until the end, when guitarist Tom Hammond’s polite lead just slightly makes itself known as Lockwood’s vocals fade.
On the instrumental front, both the title cut and “Inside Out” add a buttoned-up air of sophistication to the synthwave genre. There’s a dash of Italo star Gazebo’s black-tie disco and a metric ton of the colorful, relaxed vibe of The Style Council, and to a lesser extent, Scritti Politti. “Inside” even has a hooky synth riff that leans toward Hall and Oates territory for good measure.
The bottom line is that for those used to the more danceable or darker side of synthwave, Duett’s Borderline offers up a crucial down-tempo counterpoint to all of that. These are exquisite songs and this a resplendent album.
Even more importantly, there are no over-compressed, over-produced cliches here. Duett’s not attempting to troll anyone or create new genre labels or do any other cynical sort of thing to get attention. Duett just makes great music.
(Feature Photo: Album art for ‘Borderline.’ Credit: Forces Creative.)