Tonetraeger: This Is Not Here

On paper, Tonetraeger promises much. Comprised of Düsseldorfers Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka, Music A.M.) and Torsten Mauss (Twig), their second unabashed stab at pop musicThis Is Not Here includes contributions from Kreidler drummer Thomas Klein with mixing duties handled by Tarwater bassist Bernd Jestram; not surprisingly, echoes of Music A.M., Kreidler, Tarwater, and To Rococo Rot surface throughout the album. While Tonetraeger's 2002 debut Spieleabend is a predominantly electronic affair, the new release deliberately courts a more natural band-like sound by adding non-synthetic elements like glockenspiels, guitars, drums, strings, and horns.

Four tracks place vocals at the forefront, with the remaining eight less imposing instrumentals. “Trains” is the first of the vocal outings and serves as a representative example of the song-based style. Instrumentally, its arrangement of handclaps, kalimbas, acoustic guitars, shakers, and electronics impresses; the multi-tracked lead vocal is also pleasant and the song is boosted by an explosion of joyous ‘60s-styled harmonies. With its sweetly lapping woodwinds and chimes, “Lovestory Letter” also charms. Unfortunately, in every case songs are crippled by trite lyrics; certainly couplets (from Kathryn Jackson in this instance) like “Then four little cats / Ran out to play/ In the dewy blue / Of an April day” won't give Stephen Sondheim sleepless nights. And saddling a song, no matter how strong its uptempo rock might be, with a title like “I'm OK” seems a misstep.

Instrumentals like the idyllic “Ty Neuadd” and the declamatory opener “Loveliness” fare better. In the latter, layers of vibes, guitars, drums, and horns escalate into joyful throes of abandon with Martin Zobel's trumpet solo leading the charge. With their repetitive motorik grooves, “Deuter” and “Innercity” recall To Rococo Rot, while “Mona Lisa Overdrive” is distinguished by delicate guitar and deep cello tones. Banal “ba-ba” background vocals diminish “Elastic” but it's rescued by blistering guitar playing. Instrumentally reminiscent of Steve Reich in his Tehillim phase, the most captivating piece is “Minekos Getas” whose quasi-gamelan patterns of chimes, bells, and vibes are deepened with horn and string accents.

This Is Not Here registers as sincere and heartfelt, even if its intended innocence ends up sounding naïve. So while Tonetraeger gets full marks for sincerity, what of the album's quality? It's admittedly pleasant but won't incite a revolution any time soon; aside from the mediocre lyrics, no moments of melodic magic burst forth and lodge in one's memory either. Heard after Tarwater's Silur, for example, This Is Not Here sounds second-rate. At best, one lauds the group's effort and acknowledges the sparkle of its splendid arrangements.

December 2004