Articulating the relevance of the definitive Krautrock band NEU! in the rock canon is a nigh impossible task. I would have better luck wounding the sun with ice-cream arrows. The band's three proper albums have been criminally out of print in this country for 25 years. Krautrock, an appellation buzzed up by lazy British journalists, was a musical movement primarily based in West Germany that sought to fuse the concepts and methodology of avant garde composition with the melodies, tropes, and trappings of rock-and-roll. The most visible and most easily parodied group in all of Krautrock was Kraftwerk (see Saturday Night Live's "Dieter" skit). In 1971, Kraftwerk served as the meeting point for guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger, who soon departed from the band to form NEU! -- all CAPS, every time, exclamation point! -- a screaming pop-art adjective meaning new, fresh, or modern, usually written in eye-catching Day-Glo, like a detergent ad.
The band's eponymous debut was released in 1972 to relatively little acclaim but gradually began to gather recognition. The first album is an epiphany. It's as simple as that. On "Hallogallo," Rother starts out making guitar noises that one would swear are seagulls playing the bagpipes -- trance-inducing yet galvanizing. Dinger, who just edges out the Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker for greatest rock non-drummer of all time, has an extremely limited repertoire: one beat (at various tempos) and one fill. But the sound is never tiresome. Once Dinger starts his relentless motorik rhythm, the heartbeat of the autobahn, one wishes the song would never end.
The success of the first record put more pressure on the duo to release a profitable sophomore effort. In the studio for NEU! 2 things were going well until the group realized that they had exceeded their budget after recording only two full songs. In this case, necessity was the mother of invention and thus was born the rock-and-roll remix. NEU! put their two completed songs, "Super" and "Neuschnee," on side 2 of the record at different speeds (16 rpm and 78 rpm) and one track with Dinger just manually diddling with the tempo. Ultimately NEU! 2 is a wondrously prankish, but failed, experiment.
Due to the inevitable split based on "artistic differences," the band took a two-year hiatus. They re-formed, and the result, NEU! 75, is a fascinating rock chimera. NEU! 75 lets Rother and Dinger rule their own fiefdoms, with each getting a side of his own. Rother's work, while bucolic and luxurious, doesn't necessarily gain any new artistic ground. Side 2 is where Dinger exercises his id and gives Johnny Rotten a template for affected electric lunacy. Dinger's howled, high-in-the-mix vocals on "Hero," the most important NEU! song since the first album's "Hallogallo," truly acts as a harbinger for the punk sound, particularly the British bad-teeth-on-the-bleedin'-dole variety.
NEU! has always been about motion. The parents of Krautrockers are of a generation that Tom Brokaw would probably not call the greatest. A collective national guilt pervaded daily life in Germany. NEU! evokes that desire to continually keep moving, dancing away from the past. Their influence on other musicians has been phenomenal. David Bowie openly credits them as the major influence on his Berlin trilogy of albums (Low, Heroes, Lodger).
The remastering on these three reissues is superb. Supposedly, it took three go-arounds at the control boards and months of legal wrangling. But it's worth it to have them back in print. And if you notice some sonic dropout effects and needle-dropping surface noise, don't return it as defective. It is all an intentional part of NEU!'s little gambit -- you know, that German sense of humor. -- David Dunlap
Grades: NEU! (A+); NEU! 2 (B); NEU! 75 (A-)
(Razor & Tie)
The Continental Drifters are a testament to how modest talent can be maximized by healthy group dynamics: With Vicki Peterson (the Bangles), Peter Holsapple (the dbs), and Susan Cowsill (the Cowsills, natch) leading the way, the band melds classic-rock power chords, folk-rock jangle, and girl-group harmonies. The result is a second-tier rock-star collective turned first-rate bar band. The esprit de corps that made Vermilion, the band's 1999 de facto debut, such a charmer is still in place. But, on Better Day, the camaraderie doesn't enliven the band's often well-worn lyrical tropes quite as much. Instead, it's the bright, AM-radio vibe of songs like "Na, Na" and "Live on Love" that stands out on an album less notable for its solid songwriting than for its playful sonic mix, which makes room for N'awlins horns and bluegrass fills in its roots-pop blueprint and puts the lovely, lived-in voices of Peterson and Cowsill up front. "Live on Love" is especially invigorating, with the pas de deux between Holsapple's lead vocal and Peterson and Cowsill's soulful backup mirroring the interaction between Booker T. organ and Crescent City horns. -- Chris Herrington
The Continental Drifters will be at the Hi-Tone Café on Thursday, July 26th, with the Billygoats.
This Is BR5-49 -- BR5-49 (Lucky Dog): They'd still be an ace cover band for a new version of Hee Haw or Disney's Country Land, but their schtick is wearing thin and the move toward more "serious" songs, including a straight-faced cover of the Anne Murray atrocity "A Little Good News," sounds like a call for help. ("While You Were Gone," "Fool Of the Century")
Moanin' For Molasses -- Sean Costello (Landslide): A rarity -- a young, white blues hope who can play and sing but who rarely overplays or oversings. And he does a shockingly good James Brown. Doesn't write much, though. ("Moanin' For Molasses," "One Kiss," "I Want You Bad")
Scorpion -- Eve (Interscope): As is distressingly common for female MCs (see Missy Elliott), Eve comes back "harder" on her sophomore album, and the attitude dulls her charm. Biz talk, braggadocio, no girly stuff. ("Who's That Girl?," "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," "Got What You Need")
Sad Sappy Sucker -- Modest Mouse (K): A "lost album" circa 1994 that packs 23 song sketches into 34 minutes, this is half-assed closet clutter and formative ramblings from a soon-to-be-near-great indie band. ("From Point A To Point B," "Dukes Up," "Race Car Grin You Ain't No Landmark")
Sugar Ray -- Sugar Ray (Atlantic): The band's multi-culti radio pop sounds good in any setting, great in none. Lead singer/celebrity Mark McGrath is smooth enough to turn groupie sex into a sweet lover's plea on "Answer the Phone" but not nearly smooth enough to redeem the awkward '80s nostalgia of "Under The Sun." ("When It's Over," "Disasterpiece")
Filtered: The Best of Filtered Dance -- Various Artists (Tommy Boy): A continuous-mix compilation of dance tracks recorded through a process that I don't really grasp that makes everything sound like it's happening in a wind tunnel. The first two songs -- from Daft Punk offshoot Stardust and Armand Van Helden -- are for the ages, the rest will suffice on Saturday night. ("Music Sounds Better With You" -- Stardust; "U Don't Know Me" -- Armand Van Helden; "Big Love" -- Pete Heller) -- CH
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.