That's not a skip on your CD. That series of harp notes, which tiptoe erratically and are disrupted by odd pauses, is just the weird programming that kicks off Neon Golden, a critical import fave by the Notwist soon to hit the States. The Notwist is a band of tricky Germans that play with you in more ways than you initially detect. At first glance, the group comes across as very, very European, with wispy singing, icy synths and drama deluxe, like the backdrop for a woman-on-the-brink tragedy directed by the late Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski, or like Roxette without that blond singer with the weird teeth.
On repeated listens of Neon Golden, however, the Notwist, two brothers named Acher and another dude named Martin, seem as minimalist as "modern composer" Steve Reich, as if they were building sandcastles one granule at a time. Every note and noise counts. Analyze "Off the Rails," for instance. "We're off the rails/And we are trains ourselves," Markus Acher moans in a monotone without a hint of real melody. Behind him, distant drums beat mechanically. Even-more distant clangs simulate steam, and a faster set of ticks and clangs works as a motor. Slowly from there, the song grows more human, with strings, keys and a turn toward the baroque, as the Acher tone becomes confessional "This is all I know/Sitting still to watch the engines come and go." The song is assembled piece by piece to reflect its narrator, moving as he does.
It's a neat trick, one the Notwist re-creates with each song, using its programming skills to build just the right fuzz and blip, the right texture, the right mood. The group is also more stylistically diverse than its fembot Euro vocal style lets on. The title track, "Trashing Days" and "Solitaire" root themselves in Indian mysticism with simulated bhangra music, while the band members allow themselves to power-pop like the Hooters, guitars and all, on "One With the Freaks."
If your prejudice causes you to steer away from the Germans like the plague and given their Hasselhoff-happy historical tendencies, that's understandable you'll miss out on Neon Golden. And that would be too bad, since this kind of pop is rarely done with this much attention to detail.
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