Todd Terje

What Todd Terje, Roxy Music and Grace Jones Have in Common

Andy Beta

By Andy Beta

on 04.01.14 in Lists

[In each Six Degrees feature, we explore the sonic and spiritual connections behind one record. — Ed.]

In the early 2000s, Norway experienced a musical renaissance of sorts, from the electro-confections of Annie to the groggy prog-disco of Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas. Somewhere between the two resides producer Terje Olsen, who hails from the small town of Mjøndalen and re-jiggered the name of New York house producer Todd Terry for his own nom de plume, Todd Terje. Emerging in 2004, Terje drew from both Annie’s pop sensibilities and L&PT’s penchant for expansive space disco grooves, amassing a catalog of remixes, catchy disco edits (of everyone from Paul Simon to obscurities like Sam-Jam’s “Dance and Chant”) and a string of summertime staple singles.

All those strands culminate in a joyous climax on Terje’s first long-player, It’s Album Time. Fidgety, cheeky and gleeful in equal measure, Terje’s debut showcases his penchant for making exhilarating tracks that convene on the G-spot of house, Balearic, nu-disco and Italo. He’s also able to detour into synth noodling (“Leisure Suit Preben”), Miami Vice-tropical grooves (“Preben Goes to Acapulco”) and whiz-bang Afro-Cuban rhythms (“Svensk Saas”) yet still make it all sound of a piece. Previous singles “Strandbar” and “Inspector Norse” remain the centerpieces, but the album conveys a sense of ecstatic joy usually reserved for eight-year-olds who spin themselves dizzy.

But the album’s most stunning track is also its slowest and most composed: Terje’s collaboration with Bryan Ferry. The duo cover Robert Palmer’s new-wave hit “Johnny and Mary” with Terje slowing his synths to a pacing redolent of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” The original told of a young, star-crossed couple, yet with Ferry’s careful phrasing and weathered croon, the song now details a couple who might’ve just celebrated their jade wedding anniversary, still in love yet still at odds. For a new artist, it reveals a startling sense of craft that suggests Terje has already matured as an album crafter. Judging by the strength of It’s Album Time, fans may now eagerly anticipate each successive Terje album as much as they did his singles.

The Nu-Disco Norwegian

When Todd Terje began to delve into electronic music in his small hometown of Mjøndalen, he found kindred spirits in the mischievous productions of countrymen like Erot (Tore Kroknes, who produced Annie's breakout "The Biggest Hit") and Bjørn Torske, who began making nu-disco tracks way back in 1999. Torske's tastes range from classic disco and early house to Ennio Morricone and Moondog, and his idiosyncratic 2010 album Kokning shows that he has a humor as peculiar as that of Terje. Torske has the airiest of touches on "Slitte Sko," his drums ticklish rather than thumping, something Terje uses for the whimsical passages on tracks like "Leisure Suit Preben." Torske also ranges just as wide across the canvas of a full-length, building from the gentle strums and pulses of "Gullfjellet" to the dubby disco of "Nitten Nitti," capping the album with the expansive 12 minutes of "Furu."

The Crooner


Roxy Music

When Roxy Music premiered in the UK in 1972, the group instantly catalyzed British art- and progressive-rock, coupling Brian Eno's squalling synths with frontman Bryan Ferry's svelte croon. When Eno left the fold the next year, Roxy Music began to streamline its sound. By the time of Roxy Music's eighth album (and swansong), Ferry and cohorts had perfected a smoldering, nu-romantic template, deploying those once-noisy synths to create an elegant, brooding sense of ambience that has wafted over to Ferry's solo work.

Terje himself has remixed Ferry's "Don't Stop the Dance" and "Alphaville" in the past, so he makes sense as a collaborator on It's Album Time. Ferry's meticulously-groomed yet forever-forlorn lover man seems like a foil to Terje's more playful, mustachioed persona, but Terje's tracks have evolved along a scale similar to Roxy's, becoming more graceful and sumptuous with each release. Ferry's is the lone voice to be heard on the album and it comes on Album's centerpiece, the slow-burning "Johnny and Mary." Terje and Ferry complement each other and it sounds like a match made in heaven.

The Jamaican Gal

Private Life: The Compass Point Years

Grace Jones

Despite hailing from a sun-starved country like Norway, Terje's tracks are infused with a healthy amount of aural Vitamin D. In addition to updating disco, It's Album Time also mixes in tropical swing and Jamaican dub effects to playful effect on "Strandbar" and "Delorian Dynamite." Terje draws primarily from the pliant, durable island grooves that Sly & Robbie and keyboardist Wally Badarou perfected at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas while backing Jamaican fashion icon Grace Jones. Across three epochal '80s albums compiled on Private Life, Jones teamed with the trio to craft a paradigm-shifting take on a fantastically diverse songbook. Jones audaciously shreds songs from the likes of The Normal, Smokey Robinson and the Pretenders, remaking them in her own striking image. Her take on Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" in particular is as harrowing and maniacal as an actual breakdown.

The New Waver


Robert Palmer

In the late 1970s, the chameleonic Brit Robert Palmer enjoyed a touch of success as a blue-eyed soul singer who also dabbled in reggae and blues rock. But at the start of the new decade, Palmer underwent a radical reinvention: He became a sleek and sharp-suited new wave act, decamping to the Caribbean and living across the street from Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas (the same studio where Grace Jones was cutting her aforementioned classics.) Clues introduced him to a younger audience. The twitchy title track — replete with iridescent metallophone solo — anticipates the giddy synth stylings of Terje, and the dreamy Afro-dubbing of "Woke Up Laughing" is a close cousin to Terje's "Diamonds Dub" (his beatific re-imagining of Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes"). But the highlight is the whip-smart original take of "Johnny and Mary," an acute study of a young couple that's as erratic and infuriating as any on Girls.

The Editors

British crate-digger DJs and slo-mo disco remixers Joel Martin and Radioslave's Matt Edwards teamed up as Quiet Village in 2005 and began to release cunning disco edits contemporaneous with Terje. Cuts like "Circus of Horror" and "Can't Be Beat" — one blaxploitation-funky, the other sleazy-Italo — showed their range, while on "Too High Too Move," they cheekily juxtapose Giorgio Moroder and Captain & Tenille. At other moments, Quiet Village behaved like their tiki-lounge namesake; they turn Alan Parsons Project into an island sunset, the solemn strings of the Chi-Lites' "Coldest Day of My Life" into overhead seabirds.