[9 June 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Weimar region in the central German state of Thüringen may not be the first place you’d expect to find electronic pop music that’s cool, sexy, and warm. But those adjectives suit Marbert Rocel quite well. The trio’s debut album is an unassuming but nonetheless catchy and eclectic collection of moods. If trip-hop is a bygone genre, Speed Emotions qualifies convincingly as “what’s next”.
Marbert Rocel’s songs aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. With a lot of bands, that’s an indictment. Here, it’s a compliment, a sign of confidence on the band’s part. Most tracks take a while to get going, tempting you to adjust the volume to make sure they’re there at all. Once they do fall into place, they’re well-constructed, but also loose and spacious. Interludes are not uncommon. The electronic rhythms, augmented by 21st century clicks and other idiosyncratic noises, are punchy and often danceable, but never force the issue. Electronic and live bass and guitar provide the rest of the backbone, and a single layer of keyboard or synthesizer sets things up for Antje Seifarth’s voice. Subtle, mildly jazzy, and on-key, Seifarth adds listenability and sex appeal without ever trying to steal the show. Really, the overall effect is that you feel as if you’re sharing coffee and a cigarette with Marbert Rocel rather than listening to them.
But don’t let that give you the idea that these guys are boring homebodies. Their music reveals too broad a palate for that. “Seven Stars” and “Red Shoes” have a distinctly Latin feel, “The Pack” and single “Beats Like Birds” are housey, while “Purple Bass” dabbles in a little drum’n'bass. Meanwhile, “The Harder They Come” is not a cover of the Jimmy Cliff classic, though it does have a hazy, dubby feel and meandering melodic lines. All of this is rendered with a uniform subtlety and lightness of touch that ensure it doesn’t come across as hodgepodge.
First and foremost, Marbert Rocel is a pop group, and the best songs on Speed Emotions let those sensibilities come to the fore. That’s a compliment too, actually, when you consider the effortless yet sprightly grooves and picked guitar patterns of “Tttictictac”. It’s like Timbaland after having spent a semester abroad. Even better, though, is “Cornflake Boy”. Bearing no relation to Tori Amos’s “Cornflake Girl”, the track is built almost entirely on pitter-pattering percussion, bits of overdriven organ, and a flatly irresistible chorus. In a perfect lyrical reflection of the band’s charming lack of pretension and eye for detail, Siefarth sings literally about wanting nothing more than to share a bowl of cereal with the object of her affection: “Every morning when I / Crunch my flakes / I want you to be close to me”.
No milkshake, no hard candy, no humps. Just cornflakes. But just to prove to you that they aren’t mere pop tarts, the band also include “Blue Days”, a stark, affecting lament, and “Eleanor Birdbath”, an instrumental dance tune that features the slightest hint of the “Eleanor Rigby” melody and some Kraftwerk-referencing vocoder effects. A couple of tracks do misfire, meandering into the territory where unassuming becomes nondescript. But overall, this is a solid, assured debut, simultaneously unique and familiar. In terms of music and overall feel, Saint Etienne would be the closest reference point. Like Saint Etienne, Marbert Rocel strike a fruitful balance between artful arrangement and good ol’ songcraft, reminding you that the pleasure of pop music doesn’t always have to be a guilty one.