Friday, June 11, 2010

Music Review: Ellen Allien - Dust



"Her newest album may be called Dust, but it was 2008s Sool that reduced the Ellen Allien sound to rubble. Here was a record that not only evidenced yet another 180 degree aesthetic turn in career defined by them, but after hitting something of a popular peak with 2006s equally laudatory Apparat collaboration Orchestra of Bubbles, also saw Allien retreat inward, only to emerge with a hollowed-out document of ghostly tech-house and dimly lit vocal exhortations. The album confused a lot of listeners; I thought it was one of her best and most focused efforts of her entire career. Title notwithstanding, Dust once again represents a change in direction from its predecessor, only this time back toward textures and techniques already pretty well established in the Allien oeuvre. As such, arriving as it does two years after such an alien document as Sool, Dust can’t help but feel a little overly familiar by comparison. Luckily, Allien’s retained enough of her near unparalleled ear for melody to withstand what is ultimately something of a water-treading album.

It’s evident from fairly early on that her new album isn’t meant to be a continuation of Sool’s ricocheting shadowscapes—for one, Tobias Freund handles production here, and his glossy touch marks a noticeable departure from AGF’s measured minimalism. Nevertheless, strong opener “Our Utopie” finds its footing almost immediately, elevating via a fairly simple foundation of metronomic rhythms and chiming countermelody, which, along with its wind-swept synth backdrop, coalesces into the kind of recognizably euphoric house construction that Allien all but perfected on 2003s stone-classic Berlinette. This momentum carries over seamlessly into lead single “Flashy Flashy”, which based on nothing more than that title can probably be ascertained as the record’s one big pop move. Here Allien’s pitch-shifted vocals provide an uneasy and insidiously catchy edge to one of her most streamlined compositions to date, and by the looks of these two surprisingly immediate tracks, the resulting album would seem to be headed towards similarly satisfying if not totally revelatory ends. Continue with these expectations though, and you’ll come up a little disappointed I’m afraid.

“My Tree” follows on the heels of the two table setters, and as such provides the first of a few bridges between the album’s many crests and troughs. Unfortunately, the two most unexpected moments come in the form of the album’s two most traditional cuts, “Sun the Rain” and “You”. Both utilize clean guitar lines to carry their individual melodies, and while not unpleasant sounding, neither is well-defined enough to mark any significant difference between their individual employments (I literally had to toggle between the tracks to double check if they weren’t in fact one in the same). These tracks tend to work as breathers between Dust’s more aggressive—or at least more cerebral—moments, which in essence should provide a kind of sonic contrast between the two. Instead, the only thing accentuated about Dust’s longest track, the 7-minute “Should We Go Home”, is its wandering structure and misplaced experimentation. It more than likely would have stood as the album’s nadir regardless, but coming smack in the middle of what is more or less an electronic pop record, its shoehorned ambiance simply feels forced.

Thankfully, like its sparkling opening trifecta, the last quarter of the album fairs a bit better. “Dreams” deploys an almost poly-rhythmic beat sequence, which stutters and reactivates mid-track with the addition of Allien’s clipped phrasing, while “Huibuh” establishes a pleasantly loose beat-clack/synth alternation—again working as a kind of breather—before closer “Schlumi” juxtaposes a slowed down rhythm track with overdriven synth and high melodic tones which sound almost like manipulated vocals. These are all fairly good tracks, but taken as a whole, Dust can still come off as a little slight. Even her most divisive records—Sool, of course, but also 2005s Thrills—at least came packaged as focused and singularly unique entities. A few of the tracks on Dust sound like they could have been made by anyone, which in the end is probably the most surprising thing about the album. So what we have here then—and for the first time in Allien’s career in fact—is a transitional record. I’m confident she could make a full-blown bid at electro-pop if she set her mind to it. But until she chooses one or the other, she’ll inevitably come up with tentative statements like Dust. There are certainly more than enough strong individual tracks here to cherry pick for a DJ mix or a lounge playlist, but as a standalone work, Dust has about ten years of astounding work for which to be held accountable." [69/100] [Published 07.06.10]

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