The Notwist – Neon Golden: Round 39, Nick’s choice

After three months of having my CD collection packed ready for moving, we’re now in the new house, and, though CDs are still in boxes right now, they are at least open boxes. Faced with a couple of thousand albums to pick from and no theme, I pretty much abdicated responsibility for my choice this week, and brought three records to Rob’s house. I revealed the years they were from (2002, 2007, and 2008) and asked my co-conspirators to pick. 2002, and The Notwist (pronounced not-wist rather than no-twist), won. (I shan’t reveal the other two, as I’ll probably play them soon enough.)

The Notwist started out as a grunge/metal influenced group near Munich in 1989, and have moved through various sonic identities since then. By their fifth album Shrink in 1998, Neon Golden’s predecessor, they were exploring strange territory between jazz and electronic music, far removed from their early beginnings. Neon Golden itself is a synthesis of low-key, understated indie-pop songwriting and carefully detailed and layered electronic production.

This Room, Pilot and, especially, One With The Freaks offer genuinely catchy pop thrills, whilst the title track, closer Consequence, and opener One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand are much more minimal and metronomically languid, understated to the point of almost feeling abstract. Singer Markus Acher’s voice is something of an acquired taste – he sings in a presumably deliberately flat manner, the remove of singing in a non-native language, which I often find fascinating, adding to an emotional distance which becomes strangely affecting, words as signifiers of emotion rather than delivery as signified.

It would be easy to see Neon Golden as a post-Kid A record, if it wasn’t for the fact that Shrink had mined electronic influences and textures even more fully two years before Radiohead’s giant curate’s egg. It would also be easy to see it as part of some kind of almost-scene of music that looked to bridge the gap between traditional indie rock and what one might call, in a moment of weakness, laptronica or IDM or electronica or whatever. I feel like Neon Golden, which I didn’t like initially back in 2002 but which has grown on me massively over the years, has more of a kinship with the electronic side of things than the indie side.

Because The Notwist weren’t just sprinkling electronic fairy dust over indie pop songs here, they seemed to be actively integrating different compositional techniques – looping, layering, repetition – that are common in electronic and other ‘experimental’ musics, rather than more traditional songwriting. Tellingly, predecessor Shrink is even less based around songs, with several long, predominantly instrumental tracks that owe a debt to jazz and krautrock. Neon Golden is also, to my untrained ears, mixed much more like an electronic record than a rock record; Kid A, for instance, feels much more like a rock record in terms of physical sonics and dynamics to me, whereas Neon Golden’s sound design feels much more genuinely akin to purebred electronic music.

In the wrong context I fear Neon Golden could sound very much of its time, the glitches and bleeps that make up much of the sound palette seeming like trendy affectations, but to me it’s the genuine article, a rich and rewarding record that grows in stature with every passing year.

Tom Listened: I’ve owned Neon Golden for about a year now and have listened to it a handful of times but can not claim to have got to know it well enough to make a definitive judgement on its quality. In a similar way to The Wrens, this is a noughties indie album that is mightily revered but which I came to late and have never really clicked with – maybe it’s the flat vocals that remove any sense of emotion from the songs, maybe it’s the seemingly adolescent sound of the album…That said, I enjoyed the listen at record club much more than on any previous occasion and I can well imagine that this could be one of those albums that years from now I’ll listen to and think ‘how could I have ever missed its genius at first?’.

Rob listened: Nick played a track from ‘Neon Golden’ at a previous meeting and I recall thinking it sounded great, with the sweet sparkle of indie pop lashed to the propulsive drive of Stereolab. Some months later, whilst digitizing my CDs I came across a 10 year old CDR with ‘Tony’s album’ scrawled across its back. I was delighted when my laptop IDed it as ‘Neon Golden’ then slightly disappointed when I played it. Flat electronoodles.

Happily this evening’s playback came over much better. I have no problem with deadpan vocals and in many other ways this is an album precision tooled to get under my skin. The tunes and the momentum started to assert themselves this time around, certainly enough for ‘Neon Golden’ to begin to glide back towards the top of my listen again list.

Graham Listened: Knowing nothing of their “journey” as it were, I could only go on what I heard on the night. Have to say it was great. Had that sound of a band not trying too hard and concentrating on just just getting it “right” on the record. Magnificent and understated at the same time, I may just buy it!


Aphex Twin – Richard D James Album – Round 16: Nick’s choice

Much as I enjoy Devon Record Club (and I do, I love it), I have a vague paranoia that this whole record club thing is just a load of middle-aged, middle-class white men sitting around drinking tea, eating takeaway food, and reinforcing their own canon of (slightly) alternative rock. There have been several weeks where we’ve all brought broadly similar sounding records – crunchy guitar stuff, basically – and there’s a danger that we’ll sit around genuflecting the exact same things as everyone else, i.e. the records we loved when we were 16.

Which is to say that I’ve been busting to break out something really “other” for a while now, and it struck me that there’d be no better choice than a record I loved when I was 17. I’ve often considered 17-year-old boys to be the most belligerent, know-it-all sods on the planet and not worth bothering with, but looking back at my own 17-year-old incarnation I’m proud that I was so determined to squeegee clean my musical palette and discover new territory, radical sounds, stuff not made by gangs of men with guitars.

15 years ago, Richard D James Album was, despite epiphanies over the previous months with Orbital, Björk, and Screamadelica, the most radical thing and “other” thing I had ever heard. The beats were crazed, frightening, the textures alien and unidentifiable or else out of context – drum machines and cellos, electronic squarks and delicately plucked violin strings – the melodies catchy, childlike, beguiling, and at complete odds with those aforementioned beats and textures. I didn’t know what it was for, how to consume it, when or where to listen to it. It seemed like it might be dance music, but you surely couldn’t dance to it without electroshock therapy. It surely wasn’t to be listened to while sitting and pondering, though, because it was insane, distracting. If you put it on your Walkman and wandered around outside with it on you’d be constantly ducking, weaving, and veering away from the strange stereoscopic assault. It baffled me and intrigued me.

I think that’s what it wanted to do – hence fulfilling the “triumphant” caveat of this week’s theme. Plus, simply, it’s a musical triumph, a joy, an endlessly fascinating creation that is both beautiful and savage, both composed and programmed magnificently. I remember a quote from Elvis Costello, of all people, who said it was unlike most other electronic music he had heard because, although there is (almost) no singing, the tracks presented are songs, compositions, with melodies which move and breath and develop. And beats like a jackhammer having a seizure.

Tom Listened: Nick’s opening paragraph has me puzzled. Not because I don’t agree with it…it’s completely true that we do drink tea, all of us bar Nick ‘babyface’ Southall are middle-aged and we certainly do eat takeaways!?! No, what puzzles me is Nick’s suggestion that The Richard D James Album offered some sort of radical musical departure for us. I’d suggest that in comparison to Rita Lee, The Necks, Gravediggaz, The Associates, Skip Spence, Zaireeka, These New Puritans etc etc, this was a pretty tame listen. Sure, it’s a genre we haven’t heard much from as yet and I heard some skittery beats but also some lovely melody lines. I liked it lots. Lots more than I expected I would. But then I expected it to be much more challenging than it turned out to be, like Coltrane at his most atonal or Beefheart at his most tangential, Cale at his most harrowing or Faust at their most bizarre, or Dirty Projectors on Rise Above. The sorts of records where it takes twenty listens to even start to recognise it as ‘music’. I was surprised and relieved by how accessible this was and whilst I don’t think I’ll ever fully embrace keyboard driven instrumental music, it was great to listen to someone else’s copy!

Rob listened: I own and love this but rarely listen to it now. It’s definitely one of the records that shocked me out of some sort of comfort zone when I heard it and it took a long time, perhaps until tonight, for me to find it easy to listen to. I was intrigued at how unweird it sounded as I recall it being one of the hardest records to grasp that i’d ever heard, one of those I mentally filed under ‘don’t play to family members unless you want to be sectioned’. So, in conclusion, great album, technical triumph but not as weird as Trout Mask Replica.

Graham Listened: Now the concept of age-ranking has been introduced to the group, as the “Daddy” (or should that be “Grandaddy”) of the group, Nick continues to challenge my previous minor flirtations with more commercial “big beat” type music. Perhaps I enjoyed Long Finn Killie more because of the use of more traditional instrumentation, but I struggled a little to get more from this. I could happily listen to this, but it would always be in the background, as the intricacy and the complex composition (all undoubtably there), seem to just wash over me. But I’m not giving up yet on trying to get on board!

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