Justus Köhncke: Doppelleben

First off, Kompakt devotees expecting more of the Cologne-based label's signature microhouse should immediately look elsewhere: Köhncke's Doppelleben (Double Life) is largely German electro-pop (or, in its kitschier form, 'Techno-Schlager' as Köhncke himself christens it) though it takes multiple detours into other stylistic realms too. Split almost evenly into instrumental and vocal tracks, Köhncke's lyrics are primarily in German but, don't worry, fluency hardly matters when the music alone offers such ample pleasure.

The album arrives five years after his debut Spiralen der Erinnerung (Spirals of Memory) and two years after Was ist Musik (What is Music). Anyone familiar with the debut shouldn't be too surprised by Doppelleben's pop emphasis, given the album's concept: idiosyncratic cover versions of hits by Janis Ian (“At Seventeen”), Carly Simon (“Nobody Does It Better”), and Neil Young (“Old Man”), among others (for the record, Köhncke proves himself no slouch in the kitsch department there either, choosing the wretched “Let 'Em In,” of all things, from McCartney's vast catalogue).

Every song seems to stop off at a different stylistic checkpoint: in the opening third alone there's a funk jam (“Schwabylon”) boosted by ‘70s disco strings and a minimal vocodered chant, a spindly instrumental (“Loreley”) which pairs dark, see-sawing Prefuse cellos with the silken stylings of a string quartet, and mellow, romantic pop-funk (“Wo Bist Du” [“Where you are”]) that layers Köhncke's silky croon over a loping base (the song returns as a simple folk reprise as an uncredited bonus track, bringing the album to a sweet close).

On the instrumental front, there's “Timecode–Edit,” which cleverly integrates metronomic tick-tocks and classic disco bass into glistening electro-pop, and “Elan” (already excerpted as the album's overture), a slowly building escapade in which Köhncke heads out onto his own particular Autobahn, with percussion accents sailing across the panoramic countryside.

Other pieces suggest Köhncke's heart belongs to vocal pop over all else. Co-written with Barbara Morgenstern, “Herz Aus Papier” is a sunny and yearning ballad, while “Alles Nochmal” (“All Again”), a variation on Carly Simon's “Coming Around Again,” is similarly frothy electropop. The repetitive drum-machine backing in “The Answer Is Yes” strains interest but the song is rescued by the added colour of synth sparkle and string enhancements and crowned by a coda of dovetailing guitars.

Still, it's not a perfect album. “Mu Arae” is a brooding ambient interlude of little consequence, and, despite its slow broil, “Elan” hardly merits an eight minute length (ten counting the intro); in addition, the synth-popper “Weiche Zäune,” so buoyant in Jörg Burger's Kompakt 100 Modernist version, turns more static on Doppelleben when anchored by a lurching dub base. Such weaknesses are hardly crippling and do little to seriously negate the album's many pleasures.

March 2005