The Notwist
Webster Hall; New York, NY

As irrelevant as the remaining Beatles members seem these days, Paul and Ringo can take consolation in the fact that the ideal rock ‘n’ roll career is still based on the mold they created: release some great disposable pop records, then move closer and closer towards more serious “mature” music with each successive record. This idea of artistic development is becoming increasingly less feasible by the day, but when a band manages to follow this path successfully, it still usually works. The Notwist are the prime German indie world example of a band that has followed this career arc, moving from throwaway quasi grunge metal beginnings, to sort of 90s indie rock, to sort of dance pop, to full-on electro acoustic pop rock maturity over the course of a decade plus.

Taking this arc as a model, and 2002’s Neon Golden as the consensus choice for their artistic peak, this year’s follow up, The Devil, You + Me, should either be the record where The Notwist test the limits of experimentation and produce an incomprehensible dud, the record where they get sentimental and show their age, or the record where they try to sound like they did on their previous record and lose their creative momentum. Happily, The Notwist avoid falling into the trap of the first category, but for good or ill, The Devil, You + Me can’t avoid sounding like a safer, gentler version of Neon Golden.

In terms of a live show, it’s much more difficult to say how a band like The Notwist “should” age. The Beatles were done with live performance by the time they got serious, so there’s no model here. Good thing. The Notwist are an uncommonly great live band -- this show proved that, even when their “mature” recordings sound slightly muted or conservative, they bring out serious fire from them in a live setting. On record, their best songs get by on subtlety, lyrical delicacy, and intricate production. Live, their least subtle songs are their best, and the band’s best efforts lose the details of a song in order to benefit the performance as a whole. Every boring indie rock band out there (and The Notwist, with The Devil, You + Me are hanging on the precipice here) should take note of this approach.

Here’s an example of how this works: as many outstanding songs as Neon Golden contains, and as wonderfully as the band performs them live, it’s always “This Room” that tears the roof off a show. The recorded version of the song thrives on its verses that build tension through electronic cacophony played over the fatalistic message, “We will never, will never leave this room,” and give way to instrumental sections that are somehow just as tense and brooding. At Webster Hall, the instrumental sections became hugely cathartic passages, with singer/guitarist Markus Acher alternating between primal strumming of a single chord and utilizing his signature maneuver of guitar violence: smashing the strings into the pickups with his hand to produce a percussive, mechanical, and disquieting punctuation. And just when you thought they’d reached their peak of intensity, the band effortlessly pushed the dynamic from kill to obliterate, only to gracefully come back down and deliver another verse. It’s a simple variation on the classic Pixies “soft-loud-soft” trick, but one that was masterfully played.

Thankfully, the band is able to pull similar tricks with much of its new material. Besides “Boneless,” which lacked any real sense of purpose, all of the Devil, You + Me tracks in the set sounded perfectly at home alongside the more time-tested Neon Golden favorites. “Where In This World” and “Gravity,” in particular, reached levels of noisy grace equaling “This Room” and “Pick Up the Phone.”

As surprisingly good as the newer tracks were, the Neon Golden tracks were still the highlights. “Neon Golden” had a beautifully meditative quality to it, even when tech wiz Martin Gretschmann and drummer Andi Haberl took the opportunity offered by a freeform middle section to turn it into something akin to a Depeche Mode song. On “Pilot,” the band delved into the dub tendencies that are only hinted at on the recorded version of the track and did so while somehow avoiding coming off as over-reaching central European dilettantes.

Age has certainly not slowed down The Notwist at all. Even though they concentrated on their more downbeat tracks as the set wore on, they should still be commended for indulging a very appreciative crowd with two encores, bringing the set time close to the two-hour mark. The appearance of quieter material was by no means a bad thing, and the softer ending to the show was arguably even more affecting than the show’s louder, more frantic episodes. “Consequence,” with which they opened their final encore, received possibly the warmest welcome from the crowd of any song in the set, underscoring the fact that, as good as The Notwist are at staging musical and lyrical tension, they are most appreciated when they can alleviate tension rather than create it. “Gone, Gone, Gone,” “The Devil, You + Me,” and “Sleep” were also as welcome in the set as anything else, and along with the Wii controllers Gretschmann used throughout the show to control the band’s signature fuzzed-out loops, they lent a sense of levity to a night which could easily have become too dour or too serious.

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