In the world before the Strokes, we had only electronic music to listen to. (Hey, as an American, I prefer my history to be both revisionist and reductionist.) From this vast, synthetic realm, glitch-pop emerged, at the turn of the century, as the perfect sonic medium between the beat-and-texture appeal of IDM and the strident hookiness of synth-pop. Glitch-pop was softly effervescent. And Germany’s Morr Music was the master of the sub-genre, housing a strong array of acts with a unified, recognizable sound. Their 2001 double-disc compilation, Putting the Morr Back in Morrissey, remains one of my very favorite chill-out excursions. With artists like Isan, Lali Puna, and Styrofoam in their stable, Morr Music claimed a distinct niche in the world of electronic music.
At one edge of this niche sits Ms. John Soda, the collaboration between Micha Acher (of Notwist fame) and singer/keyboardist Stefanie Bohm (from not-so-famous experimental rockers Couch). Ms. John Soda formed eight years ago, but Notes and the Like is only their second full-length release. Given Acher’s other loyalties (he’s also a key member of Tied & Tickled Trio), it would be easy to view Ms. John Soda as just another of his side projects. And, based on the outfit’s prior discography, such a view would be encouraged. Their first LP, 2002’s No P. or D., had its moments, but wasn’t satisfying as a whole. 2003’s follow-up EP, While Talking, felt tossed-off, with one solid opening track leading to mostly half-baked experimentations.
The time off between efforts is immediately appreciable. Notes and the Like sounds like a thoughtfully conceived and carefully executed album by a real band. In addition to the principle members, Thomas Geltinger (also of Couch) and Carl Oesterhelt (from FSK) contribute to the record’s fuller sound. Despite these extra hands in the sonic kitchen, Acher remains the signature chef. On this new album in particular, the line between the Notwist and Ms. John Soda collapses. The mood is somewhat lighter and the vocals are female and Teutonically dispassionate, but the sounds and musical ideas follow the template laid out on the Notwist’s exquisite Neon Golden.
Despite all this, Notes and the Like is somewhat lacking. While Stefanie Bohm’s vocals have an endearing quality, especially when she brings out her fragile soprano, they too often fail to rise above the mix. On the very pretty “A Million Times”, for instance, Bohm’s presence is undercut by the lovely string duet conversing throughout. The lead singer, however, seems to have relatively little to express. She is more effective on the anxious “No. One”, in which she talk-sings over a clipped beat while a synth squeaks out in kitten mews around her. It’s Chicks On Speed redux, but cool enough all the same. She has her strongest moment on “Scan the Ways”. With its pulsing guitar lines, the track has great energy, even with its almost dead-stop breaks, and Bohm peps up for the ride, finding just the right amount of bite in her voice. On the average, however, her lack of conviction brings a degree of flatness to the whole affair.
That said, I am a sucker for the Morr Music sound, and Ms. John Soda carry on their tradition with Notes and the Like. It’s not a great album, though. For moody, guitar-reinforced electronic pop, Ladytron’s Witching Hour has it beat. This disc, with Micha Acher’s face staring out from the cover, foils itself by resembling the far superior Neon Golden, but just enough to inspire daydreams about the next Notwist album. Whether or not Ms. John Soda are a side project or a real band, Notes and the Like ends up as more of a stopgap. Okay, Mr. Acher, this is nice and all. Now give us all what we really want.