Neu! is a band that you've probably heard of, but maybe never heard. (If you have heard them, you probably own these, so this review is directed to the others, with a caveat: these are the first legitimate stateside CD releases of these, and it would be polite if you actually supported the band instead of relying on bootlegs. Plus, they're newly remastered.) Like many other bands, they are probably more well known by the effect their influence has had than for their actual music. Negativland stole their band name and record label name from Neu! song titles, while Stereolab basically stole everything that was left over. (A snide statement, perhaps, but listen to "Hallo Gallo," the first track on their first CD, and tell me if you aren't expecting cooing female vocals to enter at any moment.)
But there are many bands that are more influential and important than relevant today; heck, Negativland is probably a perfect example of that. So, the question you should want answered is: does Neu! fall into this category?
The answer, largely, is "No." With some exceptions, Neu! sounds more modern and more interesting than a lot of music made in its wake, 25 to 30 years down the road. I particularly direct your attention to "Isi," on Neu! 75 (which, confusingly, says "75" nowhere on the package -- it's the black one), which sounds as compelling and beautiful to me as anything I've heard in the last year, gorgeous piano and hypnotic drumming like the horizon is never coming. Unlike some of their cohorts and contemporaries, who have aged poorly (I'm looking at you, Kraftwerk), listening to this isn't enjoyable solely for archaeological and/or kitsch reasons.
So: which one to get? Well, for better or for worse, there's essential and throwaway work spread out over all of these. Neu! 2 is notorious for consisting in half of sped-up and/or slowed-down versions of the other (what happens when you blow a studio budget on infighting); strangely enough, though, it feels like the quintessential Neu! album. Devoid of vocals, unlike the other two, it feels like the most aesthetically coherent release of the bunch. The other two albums, meanwhile, both feature the occasional track with more of a standard rock feel, a sound that feels much more aged to my ears, and some other tracks that are ambient washes that I can take or leave. But the high points on these albums -- when they tap into the core of the Neu! sound, instead of experimenting at the periphery -- are terrific. Astralwerks deserves serious community service points for making these reissues happen. (DD)
(Astralwerks Records -- 104 West 29th St., 4th Fl., New York, NY. 10001; http://www.astralwerks.com/)
The New Pornographers
Mass Romantic reminds me, for superficial and spurious reasons, of New Zealand's Headless Chickens. The latter isn't a particularly good band, churning out a pop/industrial hybrid with lyrics that often aim for mild shock and would probably fail even if they weren't so stupid. But for a time during the mid-'90s, they had a secret weapon in Fiona MacDonald, who was usually relegated to random keyboard duties but occasionally stepped in front of the microphone and totally eradicated the rest of the bands many shortcomings. She was a great pop singer in a band that didn't deserve her and certainly didn't know what to do with her.
That's what I think of when I listen to Mass Romantic, which is absolutely unfair to the New Pornographers, who seem quite capable of creating majesterial pop music even when Neko Case is sitting it out. Somewhat akin to a Canadian Apples In Stereo or what Wilco would sound like if they traded in the American Gothic resignation for sheer ebullience, the New Pornographers come up with the goods, from the ecstatic choruses of "Mystery Hours" and "The Body Says No" (both of which are like Brian Wilson with ideas exploding in his head faster than his mouth or hands can make happen) to the primary hooks for a great many of the songs that are no less effective for the fact each seems to be little more than a single chord played at a catchy rhythm.
And none of that is easy to spot, due to the simple fact of the title track that kicks off the album. As sung by Case in a perfect twang-less country timbre akin to a cross between Kirsty MacColl and Christina Amphlett, it's an energetic power pop song about streetlights and music on the radio (or something) that is so focused and confident in its ability to tingle every nerve ending in your head that it sounds like the only important thing in the world when it's playing. It's such a spectacular start to the album that the first time listened to it, I sat impatiently through the next four songs waiting for Case to give up her background slot (she's audible in the mix, which in a way drove me crazier) and grab the spotlight again. Once she bounded back to center stage in "Letter From An Occupant," my nerves calmed and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Again, totally unfair to the band. Once I accepted that there was a reason this wasn't a Neko Case solo album, I relistened (and relistened (and relistened)) and caught on to the fact that the boys have their charms, too. More important, from the crunk-crunk-crunk of the guitars (second verse) in "The Fake Headlines" to the all-buzz-and-reverb "The Mystery Hours" (noone must have told them that those are supposed to be mutually exclusive) to the sweeping soundscape of "To Wild Homes," they retain a solid identity regardless of whether Case is in the back, contributing to the effervescent cross-gender harmonies, or front and center, doing her damnedest to steal attention. I guess that makes her more of a Grace Slick to their Jefferson Airplane, if you must. In any event, I keep coming back to "Mass Romantic" and "Letter From An Occupant" more often than any of the others. There's no reason why the boys should hand the entire project to her, but should the lady wish to sing a few more next time, fellas, I heartily recommend letting her. (MH)
(Mint Records -- P.O. Box 3613, Main Post Office, Vancouver, BC. V6B 3Y6, CANADA; http://www.mintrecs.com/; The New Pornographers -- http://www.thenewpornographers.com/)