the notwist

The notwist is a German band whose slightly whimsical sound recalls the experimental rock/dance/electronic acts of the late '70s and early '80s -- German acts like Neu, Cluster or Can, plus British and American acts like Eno, Joy Division or the Talking Heads.

Led by brothers Markus Acher (vocals, guitar) and Misha Acher (bass), along with drummer Martin Messerschmid and sampler/programmer Martin Gretschmann, the notwist offers a charming series of songs that seem both personal and oblique, perhaps because the vocals are written and sung in very unidiomatic English. Their lyrics tend toward the simplest, most gnomic statements, though in a style that seems more Gertrude Stein than Soundgarden, as these lines from "Solitaire" attest: "We're more than overwhelmed by hundreds of hugs and a million good words / We are satisfied from Monday 'til Friday and on Sunday we cry."

Like the early Eno of Another Green World, the notwist's vocals are just one element in a delicately balanced soundscape, designed to be evocative rather than expressive. Arrangements also vary dramatically from track to track -- from sparse drums, bass and rhythm guitar to elaborate chamber settings for brass and strings alongside the core band and the electronics.

The economy and intelligence of this music makes it stand out, especially at a time when so much electronic/dance music feels impersonal and overproduced. Unlike many other acts doing dance music nowadays, the notwist has a distinctive sensibility that comes through on every track -- sometimes cheerful, sometimes melancholy, but always precise (that German thing), thoughtful, even thought-provoking. It's quite an accomplishment for a group that initially sounded like a bad German knockoff of PiL.

Standout songs include "Pick Up the Phone," which features a nifty little beatbox blipping away while Acher complains about being left on the wrong end of a busy signal; "Trashing Days," which begins with a weirdly sad banjo part leading into Acher's mild expressions of fear mixed with need ("It won't change / so come with me, just with your eyes I will see / Just with your arms I can hold / and keep them away damp and cold"); and finally, the lovely title track, which creates real drama in its buildup from the solemn initial verses to the final combination of electronica-style percussion and dissonant woodwind chords. The syntax may confuse, but the music is remarkable.

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David Mazella