The Notwist The Devil, You + Me

[Domino; 2008]

Styles: electro-pop, glitchy indie rock, IDM plus acoustic guitar
Others: Dntel, Lali Puna

The Notwist sound like what we might have thought the future would sound like 10 years ago. For better or worse, though, this isn’t the world we thought it would be, and this is not the sound of the 21st century. Millennial offerings by the likes of Radiohead, Wilco, Califone, The Microphones, and Four Tet got people excited at new constructed styles of electronic/acoustic musics, while wild, new matrimonial laws were being forged to marry Old Weird America to the New New Thing. The Notwist’s 2002 album Neon Golden seemed like the perfect hybrid at the time, appearing from an ex-metal band out of Weilheim, Germany, of all places, like some sexy kind of convalescence soundtrack for bedroom-bound weekends.

But the balance of the decade has given music fans myriad newer, more exciting visions of how to collapse genre boundaries in the internet age. Bands learned how to pull synthesizers out of the Flock of Seagulls ghetto and integrate electronics into rock music that could be seen as “authentic” as any grungy, garage-y, lo-fi ball of scuzz churned out by scraggly dudes with barely-there facial hair in sanitized wilderness preserves, from the Pacific Northwest to the Lower East Side. Acts like The Neptunes, Battles, Justice, and, yes, even Kelly Clarkson have sent thousands of tangential three-minute missiles arrowing through the rigid Venn diagrams of traditional pop categories, and have made electronic, hip-hop, pop, rock, IDM, whatever into one gloriously sketchy MySpace-enabled mess. A laptop performance no longer feels like watching a guy check his email on stage, as anyone who’s been to a Girl Talk show can attest.

All these endless distractions and narrative diversions, made in the spirit of music that I’m talking about, boil down to the reason why The Notwist’s new album, The Devil, You + Me, comes off as a cute but dull anachronism. Tossing a glitchy IDM squelch into a softly strummed acoustic number is no longer enough to turn heads when Death Cab for Cutie have taken such moves to the Top of the Pops and back. Accordingly, most of the songs on the album are the kind of sleekly machined music that’s easier to admire in theory than to actually enjoy.

This is tragic, because album opener “Good Lies” is actually a bona fide song of the moment (since plummeting attention spans kind of make ‘song of the year’ seem like an increasingly silly idea): a perfect pop gem that rotates to display a shiny new facet every 20 seconds or so. Its concise, economic verse, “We remember good lies when we carry them home with us/ To our bedside table and our coffee sets/ We remember good lies when they live in the room with us/ Use our kitchen table and our needle kits,” equally evokes a great novel and a bad relationship. Then, in the break, the mantra “Remember, the good lies win” hits like the last thing your best friend says to you in the airport before flying impossibly far away for so long you know it’ll hurt. And the band supports it all with the exact tricks I just maligned, the insistently strummed acoustic skeleton fleshed out by distorted guitars, computerized synth burbles, and percussion that blends tom-heavy rock drums with canned IDM hi-hat hisses.

With few exceptions, it’s all downhill from there, as the band proceeds too frequently like an impotent, aggression-drained Nine Inch Nails if Trent Reznor had a bad head cold. That sounds excessively harsh, especially when “Gloomy Planets,” “Hands on Us,” and the gentle closer “Gone Gone Gone” are perfectly pleasant, if not nearly as addictive as “Good Lies.” But the titles of “Sleep” and “Boneless” say it all, and there’s not much lyrically in lines like “No escape from this circling place” to recommend. The best thing to do with this album is to put the first and last tracks on repeat, and give everything in between a shot when you’re stuck in bed sick; it could be the perfect moment.

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