It certainly isn’t an anomaly these days, but something seems startling and slightly disconcerting about the record that bridges nature and computer technology. BM, Barbara Morgenstern’s sixth full-length release, inhabits the place where leaves fall while ones and zeroes flit back and forth in the air. Granted, Morgenstern is one of the more subtle artists to be defined by the word “electronica”. Sometimes all she needs is a piano and her voice. Then the manipulation breaks in and the listener is half in a cloud of William Blake’s poetry and half in a tunnel that leads straight to Neo’s matrix.
“Driving My Car” opens the affair with staccato piano notes and low-volume, screeching feedback. More instrumentation arrives, along with the romantic poetry of the line, “All the ice will melt / Glaciers, rocks, will get lakes/ And kids won’t see eternity / Here comes the night”. It continues to build until the last minute, when it breaks down into backwards looping that skulks into the next song. It’s a strong beginning enhanced by the transition into the also great second track, “Come to Berlin”.
Robert Wyatt, no stranger to odd songs himself, has spent a career sounding like a classic folk singer singing songs from another galaxy. He joins Morgenstern for “Camouflage”, a lament that gathers weight from the near-whispering vocals of both singers. “Belief is just a camouflage for fear”, they moan on a track so haunting it classifies as downright depressing. Songs like this show no matter how many separate tracks appear on one song, Morgenstern still works with the heart of a minimalist. Space is respected as much for what it is, as for what fills it, which works best with evidence of white noise behind her and less well when piano notes are being hit too quickly, disallowing sustainment. Because of this, a handful of tracks remain in the background, though it’s clear they weren’t meant to do so.
Despite the one-two punch of the opening and many great songs within, BM slips a bit here and there. The whole isn’t as effective as it could be. BM doesn’t come together very well. Individual songs certainly stand out: “Morbus Basedow” with its crunchy techno backbone; “Come to Berlin” manages to sound like a glittering commercial for joy. But going from simple piano ballads to more layered bit and byte numbers only creates a sense of disjointedness. It’s not that this formula can’t work. In fact, sometimes it seems the weakness lies in the intentional separation of sides, or it hasn’t been sequenced properly. Thirteen songs manages to be too lengthy: It sometimes gives up compelling for pretty and overall vision for a collection of moments.
Morgenstern is certainly capable and carries herself as an artist in love with both pop sounds and the noises of the world. While BM will not have leave you questioning her abilities, enough evidence of one great focus does not exist here. This doesn’t make for a bad record. In fact, it’s very good. Morgenstern has raised the bar through the years, but this time she has delivered below its mark. As we continue to be enamored with technology, an assumed interest in nature grows (with the Green revolution inspiring and scaring us). Artists like Barbara Morgenstern (and Tim Hecker and Jan Jelinek to name a couple more) stand in an interesting place. Their intimate work can sound like the hum of this planet. Morgenstern captured this on her last record, The Grass is Always Greener and certainly she will find it again.
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