City Paper is not for tourists
The last time Ellen Allien stumbled was in 2003, on the follow-up to her debut solo album: It happened on the song “Trashscape,” in which the German DJ, producer, and label exec took what otherwise was a perfectly good minimal electro number and cluttered it with a thick layer of distorted guitar. That album, Berlinette, then continued on without any other real lapses in taste—as did Allien’s career. On her next three solo albums, she produced more focused minimalism; she then reached further, but not too far, on her spectacular, more pop-exploratory collaboration with fellow Berliner Apparat, Orchestra of Bubbles. Her latest solo release, Dust, is therefore something of a puzzler: On it, Allien seems both determined to fully engage with the hookier sensibilities she and Apparat flirted with, and unwilling to part with her minimalist past. The result is a scattered work that is nothing short of disappointing. The problem starts, again, with a guitar. On “Sun the Rain,” the overall effect is just as jarring as it was seven years ago. Allien’s reach for a simple, repeated arpeggio is more Kylie Minogue (at best, maybe later-period Suzanne Vega) than anything else. But this dramatic shift toward pop isn’t the sort of smart teasing found on the Orchestra of Bubbles album; rather, it’s an anchor that drags down the rest of the effort, still steeped in simple electro. Same goes for “You,” which, with its weak-toned, buried synth work and guitar-like strummings checks in like Hot Chip’s Depeche Mode-cribbing wanderings. Of course, any sort of interesting minimalism, by definition, requires the same amount of patience as genius—so Allien has hardly suffered from some kind of failing. More likely, she just got bored. That, at least, is the suggestion of some of Dust’s more stripped-down tracks, most of which don’t boast the sharp attention to detail that made Allien’s past work so improbably listenable. Indeed, by the time she gets to track No. 9, “Huibuh,” she appears to be exploring roughly the same vaguely Caribbean easy-listening territory that so ruined the early post-punk band A Certain Ratio a generation ago. But Allien does manage to bring home at least one excellent track, “Schlumi,” an album-closing example of her standard-grade electro-minimalism. It’s good enough, in fact, to suggest that Allien’s foray into shoddy popism and lacking ass-shakers is only cause for temporary concern—a momentary lapse in beat-making.