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City Sounds Step 1 - Berlin

(Naïve; US: 26 Apr 2011; UK: 26 Apr 2011)

“Don’t underestimate the power”, electro-pop outfit Jahcoozi enthuse in their instantly likeable song “BLN”, “of the Berlin TV tower”. Ascending this remarkable structure – built by the communists in the 1960s and still the tallest in Germany – offers the best possible views of the city below. Compare that scene with photographs of the Berlin devastated by the Second World War and it is at first difficult to believe that they are the same place, so rapid and effective was the recovery. During those years, it was not just the physical landscape that was undergoing transformation; German culture, also, was in a profound state of flux and music was no exception.


From the Krautrock experimentation of the 1970s, which attracted the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, to the dynamic dance and electronica of the last 20 years and everything in between, Berlin has long been one of the most important cities in the world for music. A co-production between French label Naïve and Parisian cultural centre Gaité Lyrique, City Sounds Step 1: Berlin is the first in a series of compilations focusing on the unique musical heritage of key world cities.


Even with more than 70 tracks at is disposal, City Sounds Step 1 has many boxes to tick. While its creators have sought to document faithfully the history of Berlin’s scene from 1974 to the present day, they also naturally have an obligation to maintain some degree of consistency. Similarly, the compilation aims to focus not only on the artists that have called Berlin home over the years but also those for whom the city has been an inspiration, or those who have been drawn there from elsewhere in the world. More ambitious still, this selection of songs aims to take in a huge range of genres and styles, from Krautrock, new wave and singer-songwriters to modern indie rock, techno, and minimal electronica. Such is the breadth of material on offer that it would take a listener of incredible eclecticism to enjoy or appreciate everything here; for better or worse, this is about exposure to new things.


Sadly, the appeal of City Sounds Step 1 is limited by the fact that, due to its ambition in covering so many styles, it is neither comprehensive enough to be of real historical value nor coherent and focused enough to entertain consistently. Electronica fans will find most to love, as the compilation strongly reflects the dominance of machine music over Berlin’s modern scene. Although the tracks here explore the bewildering array of electronic styles played in the city’s clubs, there are very few cuts which feel essential. Jahcoozi’s “BLN” is a definite highlight, as is Jason Forrest’s propulsive “plunderphonic” opus “War Photographer”, but there is also a great deal of unspectacular techno and house.


On the rock side of things, pickings are a great deal more slim. The compilation’s first disc, which focuses largely on Krautrock and new wave from 1974 to 1990, leaves a lone contribution from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds looking very out of place against the likes of Liasons Dangereuses’ thumping underground hit “Los Niños del Parque” (although, in an example of Berlin’s interconnected scene, Anita Lane performed with both bands). It is within the realm of Krautrock – so important as an influence to Berlin’s scene – that the compilation really fails in its intentions to document history. That less than one disc is dedicated to the genre and that so much time is given over to relatively anonymous electronica feels like a misplacement of priorities.


Especially given its high price point, City Sounds Step 1: Berlin is in the end a difficult compilation to recommend. Those listeners with an avid interest in the city’s electro scene will find much to enjoy here – although a substantial portion of it they may already own – but it is not difficult to imagine a set that even with fewer discs and tracks could better serve as an introduction for the casual listener to this most diverse of music cities.

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Andy Johnson began writing about music in earnest in 2008, when he became a staff writer for the UK alternative music site The Line of Best Fit and has written for PopMatters since 2010. He runs two blogs - one called Wordcore which links to new reviews, features, and blogs and one which seeks to cover every song recorded by Manic Street Preachers in chronological order. He has been also known to tweet.


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