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Playground Fan No. 2

It is easy to have a soft spot for Barbara Morgenstern. We’re talking about an artist who’s never been really successful: beyond the occasional moderate hit (the catchy “Come to Berlin”, for example), she has maintained a stable profile, but in the minor leagues. She has never released a really memorable or really bad album: her albums also maintain a stable profile, always close to notable, but without breaking any moulds; they are always pleasant to listen to, but without much possibility of sticking in the collective memory. We’re talking, then, about someone who perfectly represents that middle class that has dominated German electronic pop for the last decade: a conventional, simple girl, who writes simple, luminous songs, with just the right amount of melancholy, just the right amount of complications, and the perfect balance between acoustic and electronic instrumentation (a sign of the times, that instrumentation is increasingly acoustic and less electronic). But nevertheless, it’s easy to have a soft spot for her because that lack of ambition makes her someone close and familiar, because her songs are fabulous for taking the car out and going for a ride (always during the daytime, she’s a straightforward kind of girl) and because deep down, we are psyched that there are sensitive, unpretentious people around here.

Once all of this has been said, it’s hard to understand why her label, Monika Enterprises, has decided to put out a sort of “greatest hits” (camouflaged for the occasion as “a brief summary of the extensive discography of Barbara Morgenstern”), a tool that is usually used to revitalise the career of an artist in decline, to promote a tour when it’s been a long time since the artist has released new material, or to make money by bringing together the most well-known hits of a band that has sold a lot; none of these three situations is that of our gal. So the best thing is to take “Fan Nº. 2” – given this name as a nod to “Fan Nº. 1”, the first maxi of remixes that she put out for Monika, around about 1999—as an opportunity to enter into the world of the singer from Berlin, or as an object for people who like to have it all, whether because of the new releases and alternative takes that it includes, or because the definitive edition comes with a compact that includes her first two releases: the cassette tape “Enter the Partyzone” (1997) and the mini-CD “Plastikreport” (1997).

Getting down to the brass tacks, “Fan Nº. 2” runs through Morgenstern’s discography haphazardly, but chronologically, which allows us (and this does have its interest) to see how her sound has changed over the years. The first songs are the simplest and the barest of the lot: synth pop with frolicking rhythms and crystal-clear melodies, played entirely on a Vermona ET 6-1 synthesiser, and the main interest of which is to be found in the new, more luminous and well-rounded mix that Thomas Fehlmann has done of“Der Augenblick”, one of the best songs on “Fjorden” (2000), Morgenstern’s second album. Things start to get more interesting with the two following songs, “Aus Heiterem Himmel” and “Nicht Muss” . Taken from “Nicht Muss” (2003) and produced byPole, they reflect a turning point in the German’s career, when she began to add more complex instrumentation, although never with a level of elaboration as careful as in this case (in fact, we have to admit that “Nicht Muss” has aged very well). “The Operator (Piano Version)” and “Juist” can be read as a continuation of this search for new sounds: Morgenstern decided to replace her synthesiser with a piano and the songs gained greater depth and melancholy, a change that was also noticeable in her latest album to date,“BM” (2008), from which come “Come to Berlin” and the wonderful “Camouflage”, sung with Robert Wyatt.

The unreleased pieces come at the end: a jumpy “Mountainplace”, with something similar to glitches, the kind of kitsch pop piece that she likes to do so much, “Wegbereiter,” and a fun version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird”. There’s nothing that really provides too much added value to the contents of the compilation, especially because in the “should-have” section, there are a few complaints. It’s understandable that none of the songs that she recorded with Bill Wells and Stefan Schneider appear, because apart from possible licence problems, it’s a project that is far removed from the usual paths that the Berlin artist walks—but it is surprising that they haven’t included any of the songs from “Tesri” (05), the album that she recorded with Robert Lippok and which, in my humble opinion, is the best thing that Morgenstern has put out in her entire career. What can we do? She obviously likes Betke’s military buzz haircut better than the bangs of the keyboard player from To Rococo Rot. Poor thing, nobody’s perfect.