As someone who last listened to Lali Puna in 2001, when they’d just released the sad alien lullabies of Scary World Theory and were on the receiving end of one of Thom Yorke’s sporadic these-guys-are-so-cult-and- essential-I-keep-a-copy-under- my-pillows-so-I-sleep-well bouts of hyperbole, my curiosity about this new release is split roughly between ascertaining whether the indie rock cred won by last year’s Faking the Books surrounds a substantial core, and whether or not this collection would only be of interest to their established fanbase. A ‘rare, remixed & b-sides’ collection is bound to be something of a crab bucket anyhow, filled with spiky little ideas that the record label couldn’t crack but deem too potentially succulent to just throw out. Is the casual listener going to be served a cohesive impression of this Weilheim quartet, which includes collaboration-happy singer Valerie Trebeljahr and her boyfriend Markus Acher of the Notwist, or met with a scuttling mass of opaque carapace and some unfriendly nips?
Well, not to ruin the surprise or anything, but from the very start the auspices for I Thought I Was Over That are less than entrancing. The artwork is minimal and mediocre, a slit-eyed bunny in headphones against a red backdrop that resembles a five-year-old’s attempts to draw kawai manga, and of the 19 tracks present, around half stems from previous band EPs or Morr label compilations (like the Slowdive covers project Blue Skies an’ Clear. There are two new compositions, but one of them is just a bit of static fuzz to get the compilation under way, and whilst the other is really good, it can’t cover the fact that about a quarter of the tracks here date from pre-hipster 2001; i’faith, the wind doth carry to our ears that less dulcet sound of barrels scraped with vigour grim…
However, while much here assembled is mediocre and unnecessary, and any overall impression of the band is formed more through formulaica than a unique musical personality, Lali Puna’s charms are far from opaque — and besides, with over half the collection being comprised of remixes either by or for other artists, coherence in any form an achievement of a sort. Here’s a list of the electropop bigwigs featuring here: Boom Bip, Two Lone Swordsmen, Dntel, Tangerine Dream, To Rococo Rot, Alias and Sixtoo. Impressive? Undoubtedly, but the results are much less so.
Lali Puna now trade in carefully produced, prettily inoffensive pop music that walks the fine line between cool understatement and not really bothering, and most of the time they land on the right side of the divide. In this they are greatly assisted by Trebeljahr’s voice, the timbre of which makes the helpless melancholy and stunted nostalgia of the lyrics seem at least partly rooted in her own inability to express things with more certainty or passion. The nigh-subconscious sympathy this causes in the listener makes things a great deal more involving; as with the best moments of the Postal Service, you become cocooned in the singer’s intimacy and ‘watch’ the music stream past you like a longed-for landscape perpetually out of reach.
This works most strikingly on highly promising new song “Past Machine” — the grittiest track here, driving off into the distance in a snowstorm of static — and is affecting on “The Daily Match” and their remixes/covers of TLS and Slowdive, but the Tangerine Dream cover “Together in Electric Dreams” manages to be both cheesy and boring, and even the surprise appearance of Tim Simenon (aka Bomb The Bass; anyone else remember what a fantastic game Xenon 2 was? Hard as Satan’s toenails, too…) and his unmistakeable bass tones fail to create a memorable track. As to the instrumental remixes… well, many of them are of a muchness, but Boom Bip ups the tempo to pull off a chiming winner and Thomas Leboeg contributes a study in elegantly doing nothing, with Alias and Sixtoo brooding and skulking to disinterested if characteristic effect. The only people to attempt anything surprising are unknowns Flowchart, who turn Trebeljahr’s voice into the track’s propulsion by manipulating it into a beatboxing collage; sadly, the track as a whole is gimmicky rather than inspired.
With a delight/track tally of about one in four, this compilation won’t make Lali Puna a lot more fans (nor does it deserve to), but it will keep their fey indie followers convinced of their own dreaminess whilst providing the illusion of alternative cred and strangeness. Having switched record halfway through writing this review out of boredom, I can say two things with confidence: 1) completely removing Ben Gibbard’s voice from “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” is a pretty damn dumb way to remix it; and 2) Plaid’s Rest Proof Clockwork, which is what I switched to, does just about everything this music aspires to do in a clearer, stranger and more endearing fashion, and that came out in 1999. ‘Nuff said already.