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Dusted Review: Fan No. 2

It took a while, but with 2008's BM, German electronica artist Barbara Morgenstern came into her own, leaving behind the awkwardness of her earlier albums and emerging as a class songwriter, someone who could hold her own alongside a figurehead like Robert Wyatt (who appeared on BM's 'Camouflage'). Fan No. 2 retraces Morgenstern's career to that point, as well as presenting several new songs. It proves an odd theory I've pondered for some time: that artists working within the 1990s electronica paradigm often take much longer to find their true voice.

In this way, their careers are often pleasingly ass-backwards ' instead of bursting onto the scene and then experiencing diminishing returns, artists like Morgenstern work by accretion, slowly building a body of knowledge and a grasp of their chosen art form. Early songs on Fan No. 2, like 'Das Wort' or 'Nichts Muss,' play out like melodies in search of focus. 2003's Nichts Muss (the album) had Morgenstern on the verge of nailing it, though it took her another five years to write her anthem, 'Come To Berlin.'

Here, the emotional weight is just right ' sarcastic without being a downer, polemical but not dryly worthy, and sharply critical, but with a melancholy that justifies the tone. 'Come To Berlin''s lyrics address city planning in Berlin, moving through the psychological scars of "growth" in the city by way of architectural erasure, dropping into English only when allegorizing the flood of artists, ne'er-do-wells and chancers making the city the subcultural free-for-all it currently is ' "Isn't Berlin the place to be / Come to Berlin, this place is in." Throughout, Morgenstern is largely impassive, acutely aware of the shifting tides of Berlin's cultural capital.

After 'Come To Berlin,' Morgenstern teases us with three new songs, including a cover of Lennon and McCartney's 'Blackbird.' They're all good, but there's real poetry in the way she leaves Berlin behind and moves into the natural-world romance of the previously unreleased 'Mountainplace.' Here, her veneration of peregrination ("I just want to take a ride on a bike / I just want to take you to a mountain place") is a welcome flipside to 'Come To Berlin''s cold, hard watch of gentrification's topographical and psychical damage.

The accompanying disc, Enter The Partyzone/Plastikreport, a reissue of Morgenstern's first two limited releases, is another reminder that she has taken a while to blossom. The brash, bolshy performances have a certain naive charm, but the songs aren't up to par. A compendium of Morgenstern's parallel career as a collaborator would have been more effective, tracing her work with Robert Lippok, Bill Wells, Annie Whitehead, Stefan Schneider and The September Collective, explorations that have nourished her songwriting. It's an alternate history yet to be written, where Morgenstern uses the collective compass to regenerate her own art. Because in those collaborations, the grace of 'Come To Berlin' and BM was surely nurtured.

Pop Matters über BM

It certainly isn’t an anomaly these days, but something seems startling and slightly disconcerting about the record that bridges nature and computer technology. BM, Barbara Morgenstern’s sixth full-length release, inhabits the place where leaves fall while ones and zeroes flit back and forth in the air. Granted, Morgenstern is one of the more subtle artists to be defined by the word “electronica”. Sometimes all she needs is a piano and her voice. Then the manipulation breaks in and the listener is half in a cloud of William Blake’s poetry and half in a tunnel that leads straight to Neo’s matrix.

“Driving My Car” opens the affair with staccato piano notes and low-volume, screeching feedback. More instrumentation arrives, along with the romantic poetry of the line, “All the ice will melt / Glaciers, rocks, will get lakes/ And kids won’t see eternity / Here comes the night”. It continues to build until the last minute, when it breaks down into backwards looping that skulks into the next song. It’s a strong beginning enhanced by the transition into the also great second track, “Come to Berlin”.

Robert Wyatt, no stranger to odd songs himself, has spent a career sounding like a classic folk singer singing songs from another galaxy. He joins Morgenstern for “Camouflage”, a lament that gathers weight from the near-whispering vocals of both singers. “Belief is just a camouflage for fear”, they moan on a track so haunting it classifies as downright depressing. Songs like this show no matter how many separate tracks appear on one song, Morgenstern still works with the heart of a minimalist. Space is respected as much for what it is, as for what fills it, which works best with evidence of white noise behind her and less well when piano notes are being hit too quickly, disallowing sustainment. Because of this, a handful of tracks remain in the background, though it’s clear they weren’t meant to do so.

Despite the one-two punch of the opening and many great songs within, BM slips a bit here and there. The whole isn’t as effective as it could be. BM doesn’t come together very well. Individual songs certainly stand out: “Morbus Basedow” with its crunchy techno backbone; “Come to Berlin” manages to sound like a glittering commercial for joy. But going from simple piano ballads to more layered bit and byte numbers only creates a sense of disjointedness. It’s not that this formula can’t work. In fact, sometimes it seems the weakness lies in the intentional separation of sides, or it hasn’t been sequenced properly. Thirteen songs manages to be too lengthy: It sometimes gives up compelling for pretty and overall vision for a collection of moments.

Morgenstern is certainly capable and carries herself as an artist in love with both pop sounds and the noises of the world. While BM will not have leave you questioning her abilities, enough evidence of one great focus does not exist here. This doesn’t make for a bad record. In fact, it’s very good. Morgenstern has raised the bar through the years, but this time she has delivered below its mark. As we continue to be enamored with technology, an assumed interest in nature grows (with the Green revolution inspiring and scaring us). Artists like Barbara Morgenstern (and Tim Hecker and Jan Jelinek to name a couple more) stand in an interesting place. Their intimate work can sound like the hum of this planet. Morgenstern captured this on her last record, The Grass is Always Greener and certainly she will find it again.

Bitch Magazine über BM

Pitchfork über BM

Toiling for almost a decade on Gudrun Gut's Monika imprint, singer, pianist, and producer Barbara Morgenstern has continually evolved her sound, from the bleepy indie electronica of her early days to a more confident brand of techno pop in recent years. Despite her progress, it wasn't until 2006's quasi-breakout single "The Operator" that folks outside her hometown scene in Berlin began to take notice. During those years as electro-pop's underappreciated shapeshifter, she gradually began to focus more on her own unique vocals, and now they serve as the central component (alongside the piano) of her current material. Morgenstern's fifth solo album, BM (her initials, naturally), is the artist's most personal yet, and finds her further shedding the digital elements of her previous records.

While her present tracks could fairly be described as avant-pop (think newcomer Lia Ices or Björk, even), Morgenstern is undoubtedly an electronic musician at heart. Even mostly organic numbers like album opener "Driving My Car" follow the build-and-release configuration so distinct to techno. In this song and others, instruments introduce themselves progressively at staggered intervals before congregating at a chorus or a stirring coda. "Reich und Berühmt" ("Rich and Famous") shares this quality, its stiff drums and treated guitars joining together with Morgenstern's emotive coos during an anthemic chorus section. These complex arrangements add distinctiveness to BM but also a hint of inaccessibility; the record sometimes feels difficult to penetrate.

That's not to say that BM is any less accomplished than past triumphs Nichts Muss or The Grass Is Always Greener, even if it's far less immediate. Morgenstern is more ambitious here and stingier with moments of melodic sweetness; as such, there's nothing as instantly compelling or hooky as "The Operator" on this album. "Morbus Basedow" probably comes closest, with its aggressive beat pattern that brings to mind the wallop of 2006's extraterrestrial banger "Get UR Fleece On" from Glasgow-based producer Izu. Outside of this lone club moment, though, BM is principally concerned with drawing emotion and intimacy from its circuitous instrumentals and technically intricate vocal pop.

In aesthetic terms, the record feels crafted with wintertime night drives in mind; its coloring and textures are classically (and unmistakably) German. Haunting and guitar driven, "Come to Berlin" utilizes Low-era Bowie/Eno arrangements to appraise her currently fashionable city. When Morgenstern asks her audience, "Isn't Berlin the place to be?" there's more than a touch of sarcasm in her query. At times the personal becomes political, and on "Camouflage", a darkly romantic duet with Robert Wyatt that took form over mail correspondence, the singer offers a skeptical stance on spirituality. Over a spooky, piano-based backdrop, she intertwines her vocals with Wyatt's to argue, "Belief is just a camouflage for fear." Combined with BM's chilly sonic underpinnings, the lyrical content of these tracks might imply a coldness or detachment, but Morgenstern's desire here to examine both internal and social conflicts (not to mention the urgency of her singing and piano playing) suggest that she's as engaged as ever.

BM's difficult instrumental pieces are no less adventurous than its electro- and piano-pop moments and contribute to the album's tendency, at times, to feel unnecessarily heady. Asymmetrical and vocal-less, "My Velocity" layers crashing piano noises with screeching guitars overtop an insistent digital drumbeat. It's the sort of conceptual number that fascinates me on first listen and then instantly dives into the never-listen-again section of my brain. Songs like this and others such as "Hustefuchs" that seek to frighten and confound make for an effort that swaps a good portion of its approachability for creative advancement. That's a trade-off that close followers of indie and electronic music are inclined to celebrate, even though (or perhaps because) it will scare away most of the general public. But BM is an album that even daring listeners will need to sit with for four, five listens before getting comfortable. In an age of vast, immediate file sharing and countless other options such as, I dunno, Chinese Democracy, it may not get its due.

“Reich & Berühmt”

As far as I can tell, “Reich & Berühmt” is sung in German except for a line in English. Understandably as a non-German speaker, the English line is the one that catches my ear: “Dance the night away if you want to be part of it.” I have no sense of the line’s context, but I’m intrigued by the decision to have that particular sentiment sung in another language, and wonder if it is somehow intended for the segment of Morgenstern’s audience who speak English but cannot understand German. Either way, this is not really a dancing song, but instead something more melancholy and lost in its own head. It’s not “part of it,” but removed, aloof, and physically and/or emotionally removed from the room full of dancing people.

SF Bay Guardian über BM

It's so nice to have a record come out during the time of year it most sounds like. The latest from Barbara Morgenstern finds her moving further away from her electro/techno beginnings toward focused, elegant songwriting filled with frosty melodies and lush piano. Her voice sounds more assured than ever on this record made for long winter walks, ones buoyed by the simple pleasure of seeing your breath turn into clouds. Morgenstern has tapped into the gentle strength and somber beauty of recent outings by PJ Harvey and Marianne Faithfull, and like her German comrades, the Notwist, she has found a great balance in melding electronics and more traditional instrumentation with crisp and classy results.

xlr8r über BM

On BM, Barbara Morgenstern continues her decade-long electro-acoustic flirtation with synth-infused organ, piano, and guitar. However, unlike past explorations, BM finds the German producer knee-deep in the bold sounds of a Bechstein grand piano, which even appears unaccompanied in the cleverly titled "Für Luise." On most tracks, however, Morgenstern highlights the versatility of her favorite instrument by layering its alternately disturbed and delightful chords against psychedelic or agitated guitar, understated buzzing or tickled wind chime synths, sweeping strings, and the soft, backseat percussion of Arne Gosh. The tonally dark rhythm piano on "Reich & Berühmt" complements Morgenstern’s buoyant-but-breathy vocals. Meanwhile, those longing for the complicated, twinkling synth ornamentation of Morgenstern’s past will find it combined with gritty, industrial garage-tech on "Morbus Basedow."

Aquarius Records über BM

Sometimes a record just comes at the perfect time. It was one of the first truly crisp and cold days we've experienced this winter here in San Francisco and Barbara Morgenstern's new record landed at aQ offering up songs that were just made to be heard during the colder months of the year. With a live band by her side and her great piano playing mixed with subtle electronics, this is an album filled with driving strength and such a strong and shining elegance. Kind of like if The Notwist and PJ Harvey or Marianne Faithfull got to collaborate, pop songs that are so smartly arranged but don't waste time trying to show you how smart they are. Morgenstern's not afraid to unleash her pop sensibility and does it with a piercing determination creating the kind of record that doesn't give in to easy emotions or one sided perspective. It's fitting that she alternates between English and German vocals. A record that you can listen to when you're sad or happy, determined or in a rut. It makes you want to put on your heaviest and sharpest looking pea coat and take to the icy streets watching your breath become clouds and taking in the simple pleasures, just soaking up your surroundings.
Morgenstern also covers Robert Wyatt's "Camouflage" and Wyatt sings with her as apparently he's a big fan of her work. They both display that rare elegance that's hard to find in modern music without it feeling too forced or saccharine. Morgenstern has come a long way from her techno beginnings and we're so excited to enjoy that evolution. While this is turning out to be one of our favorite records for the cold and rainy days that lie ahead we're pretty sure this will be a record we keep near us at all times, rain or shine. 

Edge 2008

Barbara Morgenstern’s BM begins like an installation of waywardly nostalgic Tori Amos; in "Driving My Car" language is the only separation. In fact, if the Music Genome Project made a project out of BM’s fifth full-length solo album, it might turn up, in addition to Amos, uniquely strange powerhouses like Bjork, re-pioneers of acoustic like Spoon, and the dark melodies of Germany’s own Ute Lemper, to name a few. BM has outdone herself in this latest iteration, with wildly seductive pieces that pleasantly shock the hum-drum pulse of electronic by mixing innovative synth amidst a traditional keyboard backdrop.

BM brings a range of emotions; the album’s intro, "Driving My Car", is reminiscent of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet romance, sharing optimism with "Monokultur", while "Jarkata" and the darkly introspective outro "Hustefuchs" reveal a more pessimistic side to its beauty. The melancholy of "My Velocity" segues to the more electro-pop infused revving engine of "Morbus Basedow." "Fur Luise" is more eccentric and nostalgic, and following its lead are the album’s highlight tracks: "Hochhaus", perhaps most similar to Tori Amos’ brand of fragile-meets-poetic, and "Camouflage", an ethereal duet with the avant-garde English musician Robert Wyatt, founding member of the influential Canterbury scene band Soft Machine.

Musical artists like Barbara Morgenstern show that genres of music past need not die, but instead can be infused with new musical forms to create, to expand the senses; not since the French duo CocoRosie have we seen so much inspiration laid out in musical epitaph.

On BM, Barbara Morgenstern takes us on a more personal journey than ever before. It’s been said that even daring listeners would need to hear the album four or more times to feel comfortable with its scaled-down digital elements. I would disagree; the multi-layered tracks of BM suggest that by reaching out to a more open audience, Morgenstern takes the chance that pristine musical prowess still exists. And given the current direction of the Berlin music underground, I would bet someone is listening.