As a writer you try all kinds of things when you’re just getting started. I remember sitting there in that basement of a downtown pub at a weekly reading series with my work in hand. I learned that there were several distinct types of people who attended these events. Two types tended to dominate. There were the serious writers who hadn’t yet honed their skill or figured out how to embark on a career despite their obvious talent. They were exercising and trying out new material. They were seeking feedback or in some cases nods of approval which were enthusiastically given. The other large group were those people for whom writing was an identity, their work was often derivative, pungently cliched and seemed to have no other purpose than to express private feelings publically to an audience of listeners — perhaps the only ones they’d had in some time. They dressed like “writers”, smelled like dusty old book shelves and spoke as though every word would be judged on a point scale for obscurity. You had to sit quietly through these ones. They were, after all, able to leave their cats long enough to come out and enunciate melodramatically about a river as a metaphor for life or a tree in their back yard that was symbolic of the new found inner strength. They offered up a poetically obfuscated series of emotional incidents alluded to but left unspecified in the hope that you might ask about it later as you buy them a beer. What was the true meaning behind the giant phallic stone that their “character” was unable to move into the lush garden?
I was taken back to this place after the first few minutes of Barbara Morgenstern’s Sweet Silence — an album which manages to sound like the a musical parade of these same awkward personal performances accompanied by Fisher-Price electronic arrangements.
Just to help illustrate, I turned to my wife and asked her without ever hearing a song to give me her thoughts on what she might expect from “Jump into the Life Pool”. She snorted in a way that I don’t often hear and reached up to cover her mouth, as embarrassed as Barbara Morgenstern probably should be. What about “Love is in the Air, But we Don’t Care”? I followed and she just stared at me, interpreting it as irony. It doesn’t appear to be and in fact the latter might be the most enjoyable track on the record if only because it’s mercifully free of vocals.
The bass that sounds like it refuses to stomp, preferring instead to passive-aggressively tap its toes while the synths sound delicate and pretty despite their being used to play awkward, inappropriately adjacent chords. It brings to mind Casio keyboards and those strange electronic stringless harps that elderly women always seemed to have lying around their homes in the 80s (was I the only one who experienced this?). Some bands, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, for example, do this very well. But there is an undeniable sincerity to Owen Ashworth and his approach that makes it work. For the duration of his records you really believe he’s that guy and that perhaps the only thing he could afford were these simple production tools to relay such common but cleverly illustrated sentiments. You can identify with him. He’s the quintessential electronic hobo folk performer. In this case of Barbara Morgenstern, however, the German musician doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether she’s trying to be Depeche Mode or that hippy lady who shows up at all the folk festivals wearing butterfly wings and pretending not to notice you noticing them.
The lyrics don’t get much deeper than the song titles imply. Lines like, “Ooh – for sure / I won’t change but grow / Safety is a modern myth / Family and life just a common risk” are delivered in a repeating pattern, a variety of off-putting vocal tones which make up a barely detectable melody. Aside from notable hook potential in the chorus of “Sweet Silence” (I am being generous) there’s really nothing here that stands out. This album embodies boring to a degree that I’ve not often experienced and offers entertainment value only in as far as one can chuckle at the trite melodrama. She sings of fairly ordinary things as though she might be the first to ever mention them in what she believes to be a clever way. But it isn’t clever.
And then there’s “Hip Hop Mice” and already I am experiencing something akin to finger fatigue as I type this. But is it that I am tired or that every cell in my body is reacting negatively to the very idea of an instrumental electronic track called “Hip Hop Mice”? It proceeds to sound like it might actually be the overly dramatic theme to a version of ‘8-Mile’ as seen from the eyes of the animated star of Ratatouille. (Yes, I know, he’s a rat… why are we even having this discussion?)
“Spring Time” is about spring time.
“Night-Time Falls” is about wanting to go home at night.
For an artist who released seven records I have to assume there’s someone out there who is going to buy this and perhaps more importantly, inadvertently encourage Barbara to make another one. I tried far too many times over repeated agonizing listens to find something to appreciate here and I have to say that with complete honesty there is only one positive thing I can write about this record. Like the song titles relative to their content, the title of the record is equally literal. You knew this was coming. By the time you reach the end of these 13 tracks… [Dramatic Pause] The silence is sweet, indeed.
Would you like a beer, Barbara?