Of the innovative and lasting bands stationed in West Germany in the 1970s, Cluster were the most roundly representative of the Krautrock sound. Can grooved harder, Kraftwerk were more tech-y, and Neu! had higher endurance, but the pair of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius blended these distinguishing elements into a mercurial whole, leaping from concept to concept with each passing album. And unlike these other bands — except for maybe Kraftwerk, depending on how you perceive their man-machine schtick — Cluster also had a sense of humor, something that Roedelius’ charming, recently reissued solo LP, Jardin Au Fou, makes all the more apparent.
The playfulness heard on Jardin Au Fou underscores its maker’s childlike embrace of state-of-the-art technology. Roedelius jumps between synth patches and traditional instruments with whimsy and ease, forging a surprisingly seamless blend of organic and artificial textures that is well suited to his quirky compositional style.
And he offsets the kid-in-a-candy store vibe with unassailable musicianship: Any suspicion that Cluster’s heavy use of sequencers and programmed drums was a cover-up for their lack of chops is profoundly trumped by the album’s second track, a rolling slightly spooky number entitled “Toujours.” Here, Roedelius dips into chanson-like mode, but stays true to his guiding light: A simple rhythmic pulse, even subtly defined, can work wonders for a tune.
While the album varies stylistically, usually along the synthesizer vs. acoustic piano axis, it is bound together by a sort of pastoral melodic continuity; in all seriousness, parts would not seem out of place at the Renaissance Faire. The collection’s apparent centerpiece, “Le Jardin,” flows along a trad piano line, and is fleshed-out by bird tweets, synths that sound like bird tweets, and a shifting melodic phrase that communicates very peaceful things.
As the band will point out, Jardin au Fou is not a “Krautrock” album, proper. “Gloria Delores” features a bit of the Michael Rother trademark guitar sustain, but even so Roedelius infuses the track with a decidedly un-Krautrock type of sentimentality. If Krautrock was about ambiance and trance-induction and unmediated sonic expression, then this album is about those things and a reverence toward simpler notions, ones like “happy” or “sad.” After all, a child can hear a song and tell immediately how it makes her feel.
In addition to the 10 tracks that appeared on the original 1979 release, the Bureau B version compiles three alternate mixes and three newer tracks, recorded for a similar 1998 reissue on the Japanese Captain Trip label. The new material comes on the same disc as the old stuff, and, given the already recurring themes and melodies, it seems like a pretty fluid extension of the album proper. Vinyl buyers should make note that the new music only appears on the CD version of the reissue.
Extra tracks or not, Jardin au Fou is worth acquiring. It’s about as pleasant as an album can be without getting cheesey, and, for the taxonomically inclined, it hints at an alternate history of Krautrock in which moving, abstract art music finds common ground with small feelings.