One night, at the very start of 1999, the Notwist's Shrink saved my brain.
I was riding in the backseat of a car on twisty California roads, treacherous ribbons that were very new, very scary things to me, especially with the fog so thick outside and little me so stoned inside. There was a carne asada burrito brewing noisily in my belly, and I had this strange suspicion that the driver of the car was a few dogs short of a sled team. Her foot on the gas made no distinction between straightaways and hairpin turns, and I'd smoked so much that I could hear the sound of my mind gnawing upon itself. Somehow, through the awful cacophony I was making (which surely everyone else in the car could hear), penetrated the Notwist. The beauty of the disc spinning in the car's stereo, the seamless blend of sad, indie-rock guitar songcraft and groovy digital textures was astounding. It is still, to this day, one of the most accomplished blendings of those two idioms -- the record that tempted a cardigan-wearing Belle and Sebastian fan into the electronica age.
With Neon Golden, the Notwist's third full-length, the band has come out on the other side of the electronic/organic graft. The German quartet, formed around brothers Markus and Micha Acher, now spins a burbling, psyched-out digital web, carefully studded with organic elements and Markus' breathy, vaguely accented vocals.
While so many bands have discarded electronic experimentation for greasy garageism, the Brothers Acher and Co. have stood their ground. "We've been big electronic-music fans for a long time," Markus says via e-mail (despite his lyrical proficiency, he prefers e-mail interviews with English-speaking press). "We always looked for the sounds we like and tried to integrate them into our music. I think it's important not to use electronics as a hip ornament but as a musical instrument, that also could stand for itself."
Dobro and banjo, "real" and programmed drums, looped woodwinds, and mysterious samples and sounds (like those of pots and pans being played in an air shaft, and of sandbags being dragged across cement floors) all carry equal weight on Neon Golden. "This Room" opens with synth tones oddly reminiscent of Madonna's "Borderline," but that similarity is soon forgotten in the rush of dub bass, muted breakbeats, and softly cycling guitar. The title track has a bluesy laptop Bavarian style with pensive dobro and woodwind sighs, and "One with the Freaks" climbs steadily, eventually bursting into the Notwist's most "pop" moment.
Unlike the mergers made by other skilled indie/electronic practitioners (like, say, Magnetic Fields or the Postal Service), the Notwist resists the cold giddiness that electronics can offer, avoiding fluffy, New Wave irony and staying true to its shadowy vision. At the hesitant forefront of all this is Markus, singing torpidly of trains, freaks, and love gone cold. The instrumental elements on Neon Golden often mesh so well that they call to mind those mysterious titles in a movie's closing credits, all those highly skilled, specialized folks, the Best Gaffer Girl and Assistant Farrier that make the character study at the film's center able to stand out in such significant relief. The character who gets studied in the Notwist is Markus, and boy, is he bummed. "It's the corner/it's the dress," he sings on "Trashing Days." "Small the town and/big the mess/that I cause with every step/but still I walk nonetheless." The other songs on the album boast similar themes: solitude, regret, cruelty. But Markus insists that his is not a totally dismal outlook. "It shouldn't be understood as only sad," he says, "or even desperate. Mistakes and failure are an important part of life. [Our music is] not about pop myths, it's about my/our life. Maybe a little bit like a gospel-singer without the Christian background."
There are three other main elements that inform the Notwist's sound as much as Markus' worldview. One is the artfulness of master programmer Martin Gretschmann (whose recordings under the moniker Console are critically adored in their own right). Another is jazz. This factor is less prominent on Neon Golden than it was on Shrink (though it's more prevalent than on 1995's 12, a punk-metal affair you can find fairly easily in Amoeba's bargain bin). In fact, Tied and Tickled Trio, the jazz-electronic hybrid both brothers are part of, hasn't recorded since 2000, and more recently, Micha collaborated with Couch's Stefanie Bohm on the eclectic down-tempo project, Ms. John Soda. But both brothers keep their jazz chops fresh by playing in, of all things, a Dixieland band -- with their father. Pop Acher plays trombone, Micha's on the trumpet, and Markus plays drums, in concert as well as at birthday parties, weddings, and company parties. "We like it," says Markus, "but it would be very surprising for many Notwist listeners to see us there, I guess. It's something totally different and it's very important to us to know all these different situations." In fact, he continues, the guitarist/banjo player for the Dixieland band loaned him his banjo for the recording of "Trashing Days."
The third component is the relationship between Markus and Micha. The brotherly connection may ultimately explain the magic of the Notwist. Though a hefty sack of thanks should be offered to Gretschmann and drummer Mecki Messerschmid, it was the smooth interfacing of Micha and Markus, the framework provided by their horn and string arrangements and the interplay of their bass and guitar and melodic sensibilities, that soothed my furrowed brow in that car four years ago. "We know each other so well that we don't have to explain so much," Markus says. "We can play together very well, and can react very fast. ... We've had all the fights and troubles, but they weren't too big. But now it's perfect. Honestly."
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