[3 January 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
For most, the word “chocolate” probably implies rich candy, warm cocoa, and schmaltzy Johnny Depp movies. For Berliners Ali and Basti Schwarz, however, it implies something else. Something decidedly less sweet and more calculating. This Chocolate, the brothers’ third under the Tiefschwarz name, is of the dark kind most preferred by connoisseurs. That’s not to say it’s downbeat. Rather, it’s complex and machine-driven. You might expect a dancefloor-friendly album from this duo that made their name with cool electro house, and Chocolate is. On occasion, it even manages to be something more.
Following a five-year break, Chocolate finds Tiefschwarz on their own Souvenir label and with a slightly-modified sound that favors a slightly broader palate. Most of this could fall under the general “minimal” or “deep” house umbrellas, but there’s really quite a bit going on. The standard protocol for veteran techno acts looking for a bit of new blood is to tap an array of hip “guest” artists and vocalists, who then proceed to overwhelm the album. Thankfully, Tiefschwarz have not taken this tact. They have hired a producer, Philipp Maier, and they do employ a few guests, but in supporting roles that don’t stop the album feeling of a piece.
The single, “Home”, moves along on a seductive, back-alley bassline. Newcomer Daniel Wilde’s moody vocals recall the late Billy Mackenzie. They’re emotive but not particularly melodic, which lends to a bit of a trip-hop feel. Not bad at all, if a bit pedestrian. On “I Can’t Resist”, American Dave Aju helps lend Chocolate whatever sexiness it has. “The voodoo…that you do”, intone chanting voices that sound straight out of an old Southern spiritual. Then come some soulful lines like “My soul is smokin’/For you”. Tiefschwarz’s precision really pays off here, the slinky beat and xylophone-like effects providing a seductive backdrop. The controlled sonic environment results in some genuinely smoky tension.
Berlin-via-Detroit transplant Seth Troxler helps Tiefschwarz break out of their traditional mold with a new version of “Trust”, originally released as a single in 2009. Imagine late-70s-era Prince fronting drunken boho jazzy band a’la mid-period Tom Waits. It’s off-kilter, for sure, with a wobbly viola riff and start-stop waltz-time rhythm, but it arguably leaves Chocolate‘s most lasting impression. It’s almost too bad Tiefschwarz don’t feel compelled to push the boundaries a bit more often. “Bon Voyage” is a tense, subtle, piano-led interlude that evokes a lost John Carpenter soundtrack.
The majority of Chocolate‘s 16 tracks, though, stick to a 4/4 template that neither offends nor surprises. The best of these is “Legends”, which again works the tension with a nervous keyboard arpeggio, a disembodied voice repeating the title, and a whiplash-inducing beat that hits you a couple minutes in. The track also manages to use a flute riff in a non-embarrassing manner. Tracks like “Stones” and “Accordage” again get the rhythms going, but seem content to drop in random bits of effects and occasional tribal sounds, rather than truly engage.
Chocolate does have one obvious black eye. That would be “The Whistler”, a quirky double-time track that tries to invoke a whimsical jump-jazz feel. And it relies on, yes, whistling. Or, rather, a looped whistling sound that’s run through reverb for good measure and goes on long after it’s maxed out any novelty value. Really, for this sort of thing, I’ll take Moby’s “Run”, please.
So if Chocolate isn’t exactly a treat, it probably wasn’t meant to be. At this point in their careers, Tiefschwarz aren’t trying to re-invent house, or themselves. That they mix things up a little bit while remaining true to their vision should be satisfying for most fans, even if it doesn’t win them a ton of new ones.