You’d assume that after a European techno artist makes a splash on the continent with her debut album and subsequent world tour, she’d attempt to lay down the foundation for her empire with an accessible-to-the-masses follow-up album aimed squarely at E-popping rave kids in the Midwest. But Ellen Allien, a German minimalist techno deejay and (I’m assuming) day-sleeping eccentric, took a different approach to her second album, choosing to think locally instead of globally. The 11 songs of Berlinette are, if the accompanying press release can be trusted, designed to evoke Allien’s hometown of Berlin. (The press release also says, “One should under no circumstance understand [this] album conceptually”; so, therefore, whatever.)
As a genre, minimalist techno has never exactly frosted my cupcake. The problem is the beats: they’re too hiccuppy, too twitchy-itchy to stir my blood. Call it a cultural difference: I was raised on rock and rap, I like my tunes meaty beaty big and bouncy, and the chht chht zzt of minimalist techno just can’t compete. Maybe in Berlin this stuff gets asses moving, but ich bin not ein Berliner, so I wouldn’t know. I do know that some of these songs scream out for some rough stuff, particularly “Trash Scapes,” which shoulda coulda woulda been a real menacing ride down the Autobahn if it only had a more satisfying low-end propulsive kick.
“Trash Scapes” nevertheless includes this memorable line: “The past is a light train to unknown trash scapes,” sung by Ms. Allien herself. If there is soul in the album’s machinery, it’s revealed in her bizarre/brilliant ESL lyrics and intermittent guitar plucking, some of it quite pretty. And the album’s first two songs are gorgeous. Lead track “Alles Sehen” (Altavista translation: “All Seeing”) is a loose, lovely daytime grind; “Sehnsucht” (“Longing”) is its nighttime twin, slipping cell-phone distorted vocals into a darkly insistent groove. Both songs work perfectly within their minimalist framework: all the parts are visible, they all have room to breathe, but they still fit together into a seamless rhythm.
If all of Berlinette were as exciting as its first two songs, I’d be filling out a passport application and headed straight to Germany. But if the album really is meant to be a musical evocation of Berlin, the city clearly falls into the nice-place-to-visit-wouldn’t-want-to-live-there category: occasionally pretty, sometimes sexy, but usually dull — which, hey, is a lot more than you can say of your average suburb.
– May 2003