Canadian house duo Art Department -- longtime Toronto club scene veterans Jonny White and Kenny Glasgow -- made a massive splash in the dance music world with their 2010 debut single, "Without You." A mind-numbing slice of stark, minimal tech-house sporting a crushingly bleak, bleary-eyed vocal from Glasgow, sounding like he was on the brink of utter depravity, the track met with tremendous acclaim and, it's safe to say, ratcheted up considerable anticipation for the duo's debut album. And rightly so: The Drawing Board is a near-flawless work of deep, dark, moody modern house; an expansive, atmospheric odyssey equally primed for wee-hours dancefloors and late-night headphone sessions. (You could try listening to it during daylight hours too, but somehow that just seems perverse; this is, indisputably, nocturnal music.) In general, most of these tracks follow the basic template of "Without You," settling into a propulsive but deceptively low-key groove -- nothing too flashy, but complex enough to sustain interest and dynamism for anywhere from six to ten minutes -- and carefully layering on a few judicious melodic elements, allowing ample breathing space for each. There's a hypnotically squirmy synth riff on "Much Too Much"; ping-pong bass blips and gospel-touched organ stabs on "We Call Love," and "Without You"'s irresistibly sproingy robo-toms. From there it's all up to the vocals, frequently in Glasgow's deadpan croon, though it's not all anguish and devastation: "We Call Love" drafts in soulful, deep house vet Osunlade to deliver a soul-searing plea for romantic guidance, while quasi-celeb DJ Seth Troxler turns up on "Living the Life" to drop a motivational self-help sermon in classic Chicago house style, and then returns on "Vampire Nightclub" to litter cornball utterances ("straight gangsta...") in and among Glasgow's woozy, creepily sinister dancefloor incantations ("I like to watch your body get down.") Art Department switch things up toward the end, trying out a brief R&B-flavored tune over a slow, shuffling breakbeat ("In the Mood"), a downtempo synth-reggae track ("Roberts Cry"), instrumental save for few wordless, hair-raising diva wails, and a jazzed-up sequel to stand-out "Tell Me Why" boasting some tasty keyboard noodles. There's nothing wrong with these diversions, which don't disrupt the mood but rather augment it in fairly unexpected ways. But when Art Department stick with their signature sound, even though it might not be exactly unique -- it's easy enough to trace a lineage through seminal Chicago jack tracks, early-'90s disco house and the sleeker end of electro-clash to contemporary peers like Soul Clap and Benoit & Sergio -- the results are nothing short of mesmerizing.
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AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman