Monday, June 22, 2015

NEU!, "NEU! 4"; Brandon Flowers, "The Desired Effect"

Hardly anybody ever talks about this album (including the surviving core member of Neu, Michael Rother, who disowned it when it was released without his permission) and even fewer have bothered to listen to it.  Until a few weeks ago I was one of the large majority of Neu fans who had never heard it.   And on the surface, why bother tainting one's impression of the band and their timeless mid-70's album trilogy by subjecting oneself to a dour stuck-in-the-80's palette of spotlessly clean production, horribly dated synthetic slap bass sounds, and sterile guitars mixed so blandly as to contain not a grain of the excitement and danger of rock and roll?

I hate to be that guy, but "Neu! 4" is great, perhaps even the equal of any of the first three Neu albums, all of which are patchy anyhow and tend to be dominated by their standout tracks.  As fine as the non-"Hallogallo" tracks are, the first album can't help but be "Hallogallo" plus non-"Hallogallo" support.  That's the narrative of the first album, and my opinion hasn't changed from the first time I heard it some twenty years ago, right up until the present.

One might counter with the assertion that "Neu! 4" has only two tracks on it, "Schoene Welle", "Good Life", and several variations on both.  One could also say the same about "Neu! 2".  But whereas "Neu! 2" was little more than the original tracks played at different speeds in order to fill out the second side of the album, "Neu! 4" twists a few basic melodies into fascinating variations.  "Wave Naturelle" re-imagines "Schoene Welle" as a mid-tempo ballad in the style of U2's, "With Or Without You", actually predating the mood of the Lanois/Eno transformation of U2 by a year. "Quick Wave Machinelle" cranks up the soaring, glittery synths and with its propulsive, insistent beat, gradually blossoms into a cheerier version of Joy Division's "Isolation".  "Crazy" is "Good Life" by Neu by way of the Feelies, a fascinating combination that is sadly not explored further on this album.  Elsewhere, "Nationale" and "Fly Dutch II" are a couple of wonderfully moody ambient pieces that could have fit comfortably onto any Neu album.   It's only with "Danzing" and "La Bomba" that the album strays into more pedestrian dance funk mode and kowtows to 80's trends that now come off as dated.


I admit to being skeptical that a Brandon Flowers solo album had any reason to exist.  I assumed it would be a Killers album in all but its name, much like his first solo record.  But how wrong I was ... far from coming off as a lesser version of the Killers' anthemic brand of rock, this is Flowers' love letter to a side of the 80's that most artists haven't bothered ripping off.  Whereas most 80's throwbacks are about Duran Duran's sense of glamour (and their spidery basslines) and synths shaped like guitars, Flowers' heroes are Don Henley circa "Boys of Summer", Bruce Hornsby and the Range, and Huey Lewis and the News.  With "I Can Change", he even managed to pull off the best of the 58923 "Smalltown Boy" sample/homages I've yet heard.  It may never reach the dizzying heights of the Killers' best songs, but it's a consistently great effort that manages to be cool by daring to be uncool.

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