Tender Games: Tender Games

Artist albums often capture the act in question eager to demonstrate versatility and a panoramic stylistic command. By comparison, Tender Games, a new project involving twenty-year-old producers Marlon Hoffstadt and HRRSN (Ulrich Harrison), appears committed on its self-titled album to perfecting one style in particular: a particularly soulful and vocals-heavy take on house music. That's not to suggest that the album's a one-dimensional affair, by the way, as the duo makes room for both uptempo and downtempo tracks as well as forays into blues and garage. Calling the forty-four-minute release a future soul classic (as per the press release) is admittedly hyperbolic though not entirely off-the-mark.

The album clearly shows that no one should confuse the hometown Berliners with the dark, austere techno associated with the city's underground club scene. Recorded over a year's span in the studio of fellow Suolmates Chopstick & Johnjon, Tender Games features soulful vocal performances by HRRSN and a number of guest vocalists. The duo's invitingly warm sound is evident from the outset in the atmospheric splendour of the opening cut's garage groove and breathy vocal touches. With “Your Perception” having set the tone, the duo moves on to the irresistibly soulful club jam “Lost,” which, crowned by a soulful falsetto turn by HRRSN, sees the two offering a riff on a prototypical Justin Timberlake cut; truth be told, the vocal delivery is so similar, it wouldn't be hard to imagine someone mistaking HRRSN's croon (“Come and dance with me…”) for JT's. An understandable choice for a first single, the pleading “In A Mess” features another strong HRRSN vocal performance, this time accompanied by glimmering Rhodes piano chords.

A change in singers doesn't dampen the album's joyous spirit, with the swagger of the infectious “Make Believe” complemented by SteeDownes and Yvy Coe's energized presence, though the pace does slow for a full-out stab at blues balladry during “In Her Bed” with a heartfelt vocal performance by Miss NatNat. But the dancefloor is clearly the natural home for Tender Games' music, as the slinky soul-house cut “Want It All” and hard-grooving “A Million Times” (the latter of which boasts a vivacious vocal by Meggy) make clear. All of the strengths of the outfit's soulful sound come together to dazzling effect in “Too Late,” which sees a melancholic lead vocal buoyed by a funky, bass-throbbing house pulse and sweetened with the ear candy of vocal snippets. Such material show Tender Games to be an album that oozes populist appeal, though at little compromise to its integrity. The release, in short, convincingly shows that the concepts quality music and mainstream appeal needn't be mutually exclusive.

August-September 2014