Boy-girl synthpop duos aren’t exactly in short supply right now. What pretty much started with just Purity Ring has expanded into a vast conglomerate of acts that have touched on all corners of the electronic realm, from IYES to XYLO to Oh Wonder. So on the surface it would seem like a tall order for Stockholm’s Linnéa Atieno and Joakim Buddee, the two halves of Heart/Dancer, to really poke their heads above the rising tide. But over the course of the last year the pair have been releasing and sometimes reworking a steady stream of tracks that just don’t quite fit into the mould of some of their contemporaries, many of which have been collated into debut album My Heart Is A Dancer.
Album opener ‘Hallucination’ is probably one of the most conventionally ‘pop’ tracks on the record. It combines a skittering synth melody, hazy production, guitar chords that hark back to The xx and interplay between Atieno and Buddee’s vocals that you’ll come to recognise as some of the only solid cornerstones of the album. That’s because while ‘Hallucination’ potentially lulls you into thinking that you’re in for a relatively standard synthpop record, there’s a lot more going on in the album’s deeper cuts than you might expect.
‘Low Tide,’ therefore, is far more representative of what My Heart Is A Dancer has to offer. Its drum kits are extremely brittle sounding and fragile and Buddee’s voice is slightly pitch-shifted and filtered through auto-tune, giving it a vaguely menacing and otherworldly tone. More than anything though, it’s a song that’s noticeably downbeat, taking its time to develop small details in the melody that add to an overarching feeling of melancholia. There’s a small, barely noticeable minor key tune that plays two-thirds of the way through that never reappears but adds to the underlying sadness.
‘Low Tide’ benefits from these tiny details that help to demarcate the record as something more nuanced than works by some of Heart/Dancer’s peers. But that’s not to say that the pair don’t know when it’s best to leave space. The title track is a curiously minimal track that employs Atieno’s refreshingly girlish voice and a luxurious, almost Oriental synth over the now-familiar fuzzy beat but is otherwise relatively sparse, and all the better for it. Similarly, album centrepiece ‘The Void’ is punctuated by steel drums and a nagging guitar chord but is otherwise kept relatively devoid of texture until building to its more layered climax. On ‘Under,’ Atieno and Buddee’s voices harmonise most sensitively, lending extra emotional weight to the ballad.
And then you get a track like ‘Never Stop (Eyes Shut Tight).’ It’s a reworking of one of the duo’s earliest tracks – they call it a “remix” for good reason. Ostensibly the album’s most club-ready banger, it’s repetitious yet infectious thanks to a guitar riff taken straight out of New Order’s golden days, warped synths and chopped vocals. It’s different to anything else on the record, showing that there’s more to Heart/Dancer than just R’n’B-tinged pop. By contrast, ‘Waterfalls’ is the weakest track on the album simply because it doesn’t try anything particularly daring. It admittedly has some nice breathy woodwind near the end but it’s all too little too late for a song that’s otherwise a bit plodding and doesn’t have any of the hooks or details that make some of the album’s other songs shine.
That being said, My Heart Is A Dancer is a very solid collection of songs that set Atieno and Buddee apart from the easy listening of Oh Wonder and the brash techno of Purity Ring. The pair absorb small elements from a variety of styles and incorporate them into their songs without deviating too much from a core, identifiable sound. Heart/Dancer seem very confident in their own skin and their debut album is a good foundation for them to build on.