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All of Berlin is under construction. There are more than 3,000 construction sites in the city; gaudy new thoroughfares jut out from the former West into the East, where pre-Cold War structures crumble. But East Berlin’s ruin is full of possibilities. It’s a place where do-it-yourself discos with names like Delicious Donuts flourish, however briefly.
Stereo Total, a little Berlin group with a lot of nerve, is in the right place at the right timefor now. The scrappy quartet has much in common with the shifting cityscape of its headquarters. The band is temporary, energetically using the shell of the past while it’s cheap, available, and in style. Singers Françoise Cactus (of France) and Brezel Göring have covered Brigitte Bardot and KC & the Sunshine Band: Their tastes suggest that they believe the best tunes should be thrown away, and perhaps the best groups should be as well. Their thrift-store sound, a kind of Euro-garage-meets-kindergarten-electronica, doesn’t try to make sense before it sounds dated and ridiculous. It strives to do both.
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Their playful, zany, self-titled introduction to the U.S. combines tracks from their first two albums, Monokini and Oh Ah Ah. Usually, Cactus croons while the sound of Casio organs, a trashy toy drum kit, and rudimentary funky bass guitar fill what must be a low-rent den. We dance to Serge Gainsbourg’s oversexed beat on “Supergirl,” and visit a cartoon version of Kraftwerk’s chilly utopias on “Ach Ach Liebling.” The band flirts with kitsch: They pick up genres from New Wave to Easy Listening, try them on, sing in whatever language they deem fit, and discard them like cheap theme-party clothes. They wear X’s West Coast punk on “LA, CA, USA,” Giorgio Moroder’s made-in-Deutschland disco on “The KC Song,” and a Japanese commercial jingle on “Ushilo Sugata Ga Kilei.”
“Movie Star” is willfully hateful of shallow, mainstream celebrities and their choke hold on the media. It’s futuristic karaokecut-and-pasted retro simplicity with a strange warbling surf guitar. If there’s an anthem for the international, Qiana-clad budget glamourpuss, this is it. Göring’s smooth dis of some movie star who thinks he’s something special is itself a groovy concept. Stereo Total’s affect is formidable, its energy contagious, and its attention span like most of ours at this point: so very brief. Experiencing Stereo Total is hyper-real, like listening to an insane international compilation album of addictive and compact songs from the last 40 years, in no particular order.
The fourth and most recent record by French group the Little Rabbits, Yeah! finds the band rocking the Euro-lounge, primitive and edgynot in the tradition of played-out, lukewarm Brit pop, but more like art-school punks crashing an exclusive nightspot. The LRs have a sophisticated, urbane attitude that seeps through every corner of Yeah! It’s like a night hanging with the ultra-cool.
The group is conscious of the French musical tradition Gainsbourg established of taking high concept and charisma as far as possible. They cover a Gainsbourg tune, “Rollergirl,” but, unlike Stereo Total, they don’t mention any European godfathers, such as rocker Jacques du Tronc, by name. The Rabbits aren’t ones to hit you over the head with yesterday’s baguette. Even so, the group can’t escape the legacy of Euro-pop. After all, where would today’s Pulps, Tindersticks, or Momuses be without the heavy-breathing lounge-lizard heavies of the past?
Yeah! is sometimes slightly sleazy, as on “In the Bathroom,” and often continentally cool, as on “La Piscine” (wherein Angie Bowie, the woman who had the plan for glam, guests). Yeah! takes ’90s punk/garage and plays it solidly with few frills and little of anything colorful apart from trendy avant-garde samples like those on “Pic Nic Boy.” Most songs find the bass and keyboards doing the dirty work of weaving a couple of angular lines together, giving the singer room to huff and puff. They’ve left much out, but in this underground, where Chan Marshall can fill a room with two strings and a lonely howl, that shouldn’t matter. The music is neither spontaneous nor emotive nor is it driven by a magnetic personality that could make Yeah! worthy of its exclamation point. American indie producer Jim Waters and the group often favor indecipherably distorted vocal treatments, which reduce the group’s opportunity for presence. Yeah! contains some groovy moments carried by organ or guitar, but it often sounds unfinishedor worse, stiff. The Little Rabbits definitely don’t have the Berliners’ affinity for the silly. They’re caught in a trap, which may be a peculiarly French rock ‘n’ roll predicament: They’re arty, cool, and very retro, but not terribly serious about sticking their necks out for any of it. CP