I started hearing the name “Notwist” a few years ago in the same context as bands such as Stereolab and Tortoise. All three bands are influenced by krautrock and all three share a fusion of jazzy big band orchestral and electronic sounds. The German Notwist stands apart from the other two in that their music is more overtly influenced by jazz. The show at the Knitting Factory on April 5 worked and turned on this fusion, showcasing electronic rock experimentalists for the opening acts, and then moving towards the hybrid sounds of the Notwist.
First on the bill were NYC locals the Burnside Project, a three-piece consisting of a guitarist, bassist (who sings) and keyboardist/drum machine operator. The first thing I noticed about their set was how good the mix sounded. Did the Knitting Factory get a new sound person? After seeing shows there regularly for the past four years, I have noticed the sound is usually not so great save for a fluke here and there. It’s never outright bad, but anything involving electronics/laptops usually sounds weak and/or muddy (hello OutHud and Kid 606). At any rate, the Burnside Project sound like a typical indie band from some place like Athens, Georgia, but with a groovebox instead of a drummer, pumping out housey beats you can bob your head to. Not bad at all.
Next up was the lone laptopist Styrofoam. Once again the sound was fantastic, but when laptop musicians perform, it’s really, really boring to watch. I don’t understand it myself. It’s not like watching dudes play guitars and drums is the most exciting thing in world (except when it is), but watching someone play their songs on a laptop just doesn’t cut it for me, unless perhaps I am completely enraptured in the music or there’s some crazy improv stuff going on. A few exceptions are the instances when performers decide to project images on a backscreen, which can work well, as it did, for example, in an Oval performance a few years ago. I don’t want to diss Styrofoam; his songs are pretty and poppy and he even did some live singing this time around, but standing there and watching him play his tunes bored the hell out of me. So I went downstairs, where I found a seat at the bar and returned during his last song, where he was engaging in a My Bloody Valentine-esque noise-drone, which was nice, but hardly shaking the walls down. In the end though, I suppose if you are a hardcore Styrofoam fan then the show was probably pretty awesome (isn’t that usually how it works anyway?).
The members of the Notwist came up on stage with Mr. Styrofoam hanging on for laptop duties. They started the show with an antiwar sample from a soul song simply stating “war is not the answer.” The crowd clapped and cheered in massive agreement with the sentiment as the sample segued into the first song of the set.
The crowd seemed to know most of the songs played. Half of the set was met with applause, suggestive of the songs’ “hit” status. A good portion of the set derived from their latest effort, Neon Golden. The standouts where “Pick Up the Phone”, the title track “Neon Golden”, and what seemed like a 10-plus minute driving jam, reminding me they are from Germany and putting the “Kraut” back into “krautrock”. Not much was said between songs aside from the meek “thank you"s. After the set was “finished”, they left their amps on and walked offstage in anticipation of their encore. Thankfully, just a minute later they were back onstage for a few more numbers.
In the end, the best thing about the Notwist is their lack of seductiveness. It doesn’t seem like they are trying too hard to reference bygone eras of pop music, as opposed to the majority of hyped acts these days. Some bands might make you feel cool and in the know, but the Notwist could possibly make you feel like you are listening to good, actual, relevant, sincere music, sans frills.