German jazz-dubber Niko Schabel grabbed people’s attention four years ago while operating under the name of Radio Citizen. On paper, his formula looked very daring and modern, but in practice, all of these supposedly disparate parts compliment each other just fine. Electronic grooves, horn-driven jazz, beat poetry matched to a simple melody, songs spanning four minutes—all of the usual suspects that go into making palatable crossover albums. Berlin Serengeti was a critical favorite for 2006, and Schabel goes through the motions to serve up a sequel in Hope and Despair. In these dozen songs, he has the makings of a good album.
One thing that Schabel has going for him is his ability to sculpt sound. In the most off-kilter of grooves, as in “Isarwellen”, the sounds of the wind instruments blend together in a way only an experienced arranger could manage. “Skyscraper”, a rock-solid one-two stomp, gives no pretense of crumbling under the weight of electronically manipulated sounds. Grooving it starts, and grooving it will stay to the end. The Fender Rhodes piano is another asset to Radio Citizen’s sound, proving that Schabel exercises his instruments with restraint. “Thema” is a good example of how the infamous electric piano can traipse over the mix rather than becoming a mosquito buzzing in the listener’s ear.
This ease comes at a cost. Much of Hope and Despair comes across as too distilled to be brazen, or too laid-back to be dance party music. When musicians establish a groove, it’s awfully tempting to ride it for all it’s worth. A tight pocket can be hard to come by, and an artist working in the electro-jazz field may look at it as a use-it-or-loose-it situation. Radio Citizen will end up using and using, marking time just before the song reaches the five-minute mark. It’s an instance where someone would really need to be invested in the production value of the music, letting composition take second banana.
But that isn’t Schabel’s greatest error. No, the chief fault is in the awkward vocal numbers. To be fair, poet Ursula Rucker’s voice is a perfect fit for the blocks of sound that make up the lead-off track “Test Me”. But it’s distracting when the proper introduction to an album is the sound of a lady finding numerous ways of saying “I’m cool”. “Impenetrability” is rhymed with “fragility”, and the singer takes time out to describe herself as a “fierce-ass mama”. It’s even less genuine when poet/songwriter Bajka takes over the mic. “Countries are distracted / By separation / Instead of being a bit more critical / Of modernization” she sings on “Hope”, by far the most preachy and unmusical four-minute stretch on the album. It doesn’t help that her pronunciation of words like “salvation” highlight just how in love she is with her squeaky vowels, much like Adam Sandler’s SNL act “Cajun Man”. The other tracks that feature Bajka, “Summer Days” and the insufferably bland “Stop or Go”, both fall prey to a problem that Moby’s fans are familiar with: when introducing a guest vocalist, let’s make the music less interesting.
All of Radio Citizen’s components are in place. Niko Schabel has the grooves and the skills of sculpting sound down to a method just waiting for opportunity. What’s missing is spark. Over and over again, Hope and Despair inches towards this spark. A heavy slab of noir strings draping over “Last Exit” and “Midnight” serve as the perfect antidote to Bajka’s indulgences, and Radio Citizen would be such a good act if it placed its priorities accordingly. Dare I say it, Hope and Despair will go down as only an indication of grander things. Until then, I suppose you could just close your eyes and nod your head to the beats of funk-jazz past somehow captured in modern-day Berlin. How does that sound?
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