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Laptop rock isn’t exactly the musical genre of choice for melody freaks. What with the gurgles, whirs, and fzzzts! wreaking Missile Command-style havoc, how is something as ephemeral as a tune supposed to claw its way to the surface? Even if it did, the poor thing would probably just get smacked around a couple hundred times by a spastic tape loop or, worse, a sample from the Dune soundtrack.
No, for my money, the laptop movement is the real revenge of the nerds, a scary aggregation of got-5s-on-all-my-APs types who’ve graduated from college just in time for the new depression. Trouble is, if they’re going down, you’re going with them. And as anyone who’s ever heard the likes of Kid606 (whose “MP3 Killed the CD Star” could be the scene’s unofficial fight song) or Atomly can tell you, that, my friends, is a truly frightening proposition.
Good thing, then, that Weilheim, Germany’s, the Notwist is here to save the day. The group has earned its laptop merit badge, with both of its last two U.S. albums (1997’s 12, 1998’s Shrink) flirting pretty successfully with wow-and-flutter sound collages. On the new Neon Golden, though, the group eases off the joystick just long enough to give the catchy parts a fighting chance. Indeed, if Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch had fallen for early-’80s synth-pop rather than late-’60s Kinks, the results would probably sound a lot like the Notwist’s new one: The disc is arch and melancholy, 50-plus minutes of skittering beats, percolating soundscapes, andbest of allseductive little melodies that’ll attack your iPod like a virus.
All of which comes as quite the surprise, given the band’s origins. The Notwist began life as a grinding, dirt-dull metallic-punk outfit that somehow garnered comparisons to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Over the course of its 13-year career, though, the group has gotten a lot more interesting, morphing slowly but surely into an art-damaged electronica act with a sonic palette broad enough to include instruments that don’t require chipsets and, unless an inebriated rock-star wannabe is involved, aren’t likely to crash.
On Neon Golden, in fact, the band regularly covers its trancey tracks with enough woodwinds and brass to power a small junior high school’s marching band. And, though the Notwist will never host an intimate evening at your local coffee bar, casually plucked string instruments are also plentiful. On “Trashing Days,” for instance, a loping banjo riff connects the song’s sampled vinyl hiss to a moody orchestra of clarinets and saxophones. That banjo comes in handy on the title track, too. Vocalist-guitarist Markus Acher isn’t exactly pickin’ ‘n’ grinnin’, admittedly, but the riff he plays goes a long way toward knocking the chill off the track’s sparse arrangementespecially when it’s accompanied by Biboul Darouiche’s gently thumped congas. Reedist Johannes Enders also chips in, serving up a triple-tracked saxophone that’s miked so close you can hear spit rattling around in the mouthpiece. Yuck.
But, y’know, in a human way. Throughout Neon Golden, the Notwist breathes warm CO2 into its chrome-plated songs, turning atmospherics that, in lesser hands, could just be incidental Xbox fodder into gentle, even moving, tunes. “One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand” opens the disc, earning its mouthful of a title with minimalist wood-block percussion and a delicately fingerpicked acoustic guitar. True, digitally sampled crud gunks up the bottom of the mix to predictable effect. But when Acher steps up to the microphone and intones, in the saddest machine voice you’ve ever heard, “I will never read your stupid map/So don’t call me incomplete,” the man could be the Six Million Dollar Morrissey.
“Consequence” is similarly smitten, a minor-chord lament with a cadence like an erratic heartbeat. “Fate with consequence/Lose with eloquence,” Acher offers slyly, before taking himself out of the picture: “I’m not in this movie/I’m not in this song.” Powered by elegant piano chords and packing pathos to spare, the song is the kind of tune that could almost make Coldplay’s Chris Martin worth all the hyperventilating praise he’s received. At the very least, it’s the best song Spandau Ballet never wrote.
But Neon Golden isn’t all bitterness and light. “Pilot” is a booty-shakin’ club anthem, a swirling mix of rubbery bass, disco drums, and a big ol’ “I Will Survive”-style anthemic chorus. The pulsating “Off the Rails” updates Kraftwerk’s sleek “Trans-Europe Express,” bathing the band’s ode to futuristic trainspotting in warm cellos and violins. And though “This Room” opens with some pensive strings, the mix gets Pro Tools on your ass in a hurry, chopping up Acher’s voice into byte-sized nuggets and scattering them across a field of burping percussion and Commodore 64 squirts and squiggles. Indeed, the song is so festively robotic that you keep waiting for Acher to announce that “Now’s the time on Neon Golden vehn vee dahnse.”
That, however, never happens. Instead, the words offer a response to Sartre’s No Exit dilemma: “No matter what we say/No matter what we think/We will never, we’ll never/Leave this room,” Acher chants, then adds: “What are we going to do ’bout this?” It’s a philosophical brainteaser, of course, but it could be a musical one, tooa rejoinder to the band’s postrockier-than-thou contemporaries. The Notwist hasn’t quite come up with a solution yet, but on the evidence of Neon Golden, the band is clearly working on it. CP