Justus Köhncke: Safe and Sound

[6 March 2008]

By Timothy Gabriele

The second to last song on Justus Köhncke’s third solo full length Safe and Sound is entitled “Spukhafte Fernwirkung”, which translates to “spooky action at a distance.” The title is a direct quote from Einstein, referring to his feelings towards quantum mechanical theory, particularly quantum entanglement, as an irrational explanation for erratic behavior. Perhaps by titling the track as such, Köhncke meant to preemptively divert listeners and critics from concentrating on the sporadic nature of his album, as if the apparent teleportation between styles was part of a miraculous science beyond our current mode of understanding.

It’s not, but it’s certainly telling that betwixt the genre-hopping from disco to disco (as his classic dance track with Whirlpool Productions once put it), Köhncke has crafted his best solo release to date. The album may sacrifice some of the blissful moments of dance floor rapture his fans have come to expect, but Safe and Sound contains the most consistently good material you’ll find on any of his previous releases.

Köhncke has always stood apart from his Kompakt kompatriots in his devotion to highlighting the pop angles of minimalist house. He’s even covered Carly Simon … twice. While most neo-disco producers are content to coattail Moroder’s robotic groove into a hypno-trance-like state, Köhncke is among the refreshing crop—from the Force Tracks alumnus to Metro Area on through the Scissor Sisters—who embrace disco’s more theatrical and flamboyant elements (shtick, pomp, bounce, sex, fun, et. al) without sounding exploitive or retro-obsessive.

There’s plenty of that inviting approach on display on Safe and Sound. “Molybdan” is a web of dangling, interwoven synths unraveling and reknotting into airy fractals. The soul sample beckoning into “(It’s Gonna Be) Alright” is a resuscitation of the classic house Burial was looking back towards. Over a chilled groove that should make Timbaland and Timberlake jealous, Köhncke stoically recites the lines, “Don’t worry / It’s gonna be alright” in a declarative and oddly reassuring manner. Köhncke’s vocals have always wisely avoided miming the diva squeal and the white boy croon, but the lack of lyrics on Safe and Sound will be a blessing for those still irked by the stilted Teutonic soft pop on 2005’s Doppelleben, (particularly the Sugar Ray cum Dispatch acoustic strumming on “Wo Bist Du”, which still makes my skin crawl a tiny bit).

“Love and Dancing (Update)” maintains traction by a series of catchy vamp hits on the fours. Absent a dated rap or two, it could be a remix of the KLF’s “What Time Is Love”. And though the “Update” of the title likely refers to the original version of the track as it appeared on the Total 7 compilation, it could as easily refer to the Human League’s instrumental reproduction of their classic Dare album, which also bore the title Love and Dancing; (Köhncke did, after all, remix “The Things Dreams Are Made Of” on a limited edition single). Köhncke seems equally comfortable in all eras, both on the cusp and in the great behind.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising then that Köhncke explores his native latter day Krautrock electronic heritage on several tracks. Though the more psychedelic-leaning Krautrock and disco were often at odds in the 1970s, they were never enemies (Amon Duul II even made a disco album). “Spukhafte Fernwirkung” is a loop-based ambient piece that wouldn’t have been out of place on Harmonia 76’s lone album. There’s no programming sorcery involved; it’s just played simple, straight and correct, like all of Köhncke’s best work. A linear and floating docile gem nestled between two mirror ball laden rooms.

The guidance of Harmonia and Neu!‘s Michael Rother shows up elsewhere. At the center of the album is “Feuerland” (translated as “fire land”) a cover of a song from Rother’s Flammende Herzen solo album. Within the first three minutes, Köhncke fuses the motorik pounce of his version to a sinister, pitch black electro pulse, a la Ladytron, that shakes the subwoofer and scatters the e-headed ravers under their tables. It’s a pretty faithful rendition, but Köhncke embeds a much more compressed, fuller sound to the mix. Despite it’s reverence, the effect is drastically different.

The sparse metrics of the original marshal a desolate distress call across a hypothetically burning Europe, but Köhncke’s re-contextualization adds the teensiest bit of slippery funk and updates it as a nouveau “Crockett’s Theme”. It’s almost an ironic information age turnabout of the dour melancholy of Rother’s original and its vision of a “fire land.” It’s as if here, cities ablaze can only be imagined through the lens of television dramas. Though inferior to its source material, it presents a strange new energy that is complimented by the guitar-driven metaphysics of the lead-in track “Tilda”, a moody, reflective drawbridge for “Feuerland”.

Unfortunately, that energy is extinguished, and quickly substituted, by the funkiest hook on the album. “Parage”, which immediately follows “Feuerland”, is a sweltering bit of disco-tech whose jazz hits make it sound like “Le Freak” on Arp synths. Both “Feuerland” and “Parage”, however, lose their edges by appearing side-by-side on Safe and Sound. It’s a ponderous incongruity, forgivable only in that it involves two of the album’s top tracks, which sound wonderful in any context.

Top accolades though might have to be awarded to opener “Yacht”, which is shimmering and gorgeous, euphoric and portentous, resistant to the implied pull towards a big, vapid dance rush, but treading water through large Orbital-style slides and boomerang echo dubplate that sidles through dance music’s past. It’s easily one of Köhncke’s most indispensable tunes, sure to make the greatest hits collection, whose biggest crime is being named after the yuppie accessory of choice. What’s more, it’s able to reconcile its desire to be both ambient and dance-friendly without engaging in any unnecessarily spooky action at a distance.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/justus-koehncke-safe-and-sound/