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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Thomas Brinkmann: Lucky Hands

Thomas Brinkmann
Lucky Hands
Max Ernst

Everything old is new again: it’s the eternal refrain of music, and a recurrent reminder of just how much of what we consider music is actually fashion set to noise. Just as hemlines rise and fall across the seasons with the regularity of sine waves (assuming that there remains such a thing as hem lines in modern fashion, which seems almost to have dispensed with a need for clothing altogether), the ways in which musicians record their music changes with a disconcerting regularity. Sure, back in the day composers were happy to spend entire lifetimes exploring specific niches of the chromatic scale — but nowadays, in order to be considered a la mode musicians need to totally uproot their entire sound every few years in order to be considered relevant. It doesn’t make any more sense to me, either, but the alternative is frightening to consider: latter-day AC/DC, anyone?

In any event, listening to an album like Lucky Hands it is just slightly amazing to me how much of what we consider to be absolutely intrinsic to the sound of certain genres is completely malleable. Take, for instance, techno (the genre to which Lucky Hands ostensibly belongs): if you went back in time five or six or seven years and asked for an example of fashionable techno, you probably would have been given something along the lines of Plastikman’s Consumed or Slam’s Alien Radio: deep basslines, powerful kick drums and broad melodic statements, all wrapped up in the context of sometimes quite long compositions. Fast forward to the year 2006 and techno is still techno, but everything that could be changed about the genre has been upturned: the sound is small, sometimes even shrill, influenced by the electro revival as well as the advent of microhouse (a genre of techno even if it’s called house — go fig), focused on tighter song construction and increasingly delicate melody. Richie Hawtin, the same man who recorded the massive, monolithic Consumed as Plastikman is currently producing some of the smallest, most intricately-designed house music on the planet, patchwork compositions so fragile you need a proverbial microscope to understand the layers of subtleties. In a few years I imagine someone will bring back the dark, throbbing basslines and hypnotically powerful pulsating kick drums. This person will probably think they are reinventing the wheel, and the music press will adore him for his imagination, probably because a new generation of critics will have grown up thinking Dave Clark was a contemporary of the Beatles (well, technically he was, but there are two Dave Clarks).

If you’ve persevered this far you’re probably wondering when the old fart is going to stop babbling about nothing in particular and get on to actually talking about Lucky Hands. Well, the fact is that despite my respect for Brinkmann as an excellent remixer and producer of memorable singles, the album is only good. Like a lot of techno these days, it rises to a level of competent charm but really fails to create a more lasting impression. The compelling, visceral force that propels the best techno has been replaced by something a lot more delicate — and while this is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, the lack of variation creates a perception of sameness that hampers a coherent album. This isn’t just an album of straight techno: there are a number of different types of tracks here, all executed with the same stylistic rubric. The title track, for example, is a quieter mid-tempo house track in the vein of some of Underworld’s less ostentatious moments: an extremely intricate techno rhythm and melody structure with strange stream-of-conscious lyrics scattered over, in this case provided by the decidedly low-key Tusia Beridze. It’s an interesting track.

But Brinkmann repeats the trick too often for it to be really effective. There’s a Morrissey cover here — “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” — and he approaches it with almost exactly the same studied disinterest as “Lucky Hands”. The disconnect between the lyrics and the rhythm really doesn’t do anything at all to sell the track. Anyone who gets really excited by the prospect of a modern techno cover of a classic Morrissey song will probably be disappointed by the fact that it just sort of lays there. “Margins” is built like a mid-era Massive Attack song, with a shuffling dub beat and distant echoey keyboards, but it’s so extremely minimal it sounds positively emaciated, like a demo recording waiting for a few extra layers of deep bass and percussive thrust to be added in post.

I don’t want to give the idea that this is in any way a bad album. Insomuch as it succeeds in exactly what it sets out to accomplish, it is definitely an excellent example of techno music circa 2006. But unfortunately it also suffers from the same kind of inward-looking solipsism that inflicts so much of the electronic music produced in the last couple years: in seeking an inward path towards quietude and intricacy, they’ve abandoned the demonstrative authority that has always provided the music’s most essential component. We’ve gone too far in the other direction. You can see Brinkmann straining against these borders on a track like “C Black R” — it wants to get up and go, but for the time being it just saunters tentatively.

RATING 5 / 10