Album Review: Psycho Tropical Berlin by La Femme

Posted at July 15th, 2015 | by Mukul Menon | in

Of all the albums that I have heard from which I haven’t understood a single word, Psycho Tropical Berlin stands apart as the one whose lyrics I do not ever wish to understand. Part of the unique appeal it would’ve had at a good fraction of the 2 million-odd listeners of the album on Youtube, namely Non-French speaking people to whom the musical force (as eclectic as surf means Coldwave) with gibberish is good enough, is the sense of innate familiarity looming around inconspicuously along with one of the most original and refreshing soundscapes to be introduced to contemporary music. It all seems to make sense even without the meaning behind the words.

 

 

Sur La Planche’ – one of the few songs in the album whose appeal remains unblemished even when separated from the whole album and consumed as a single- happened to be the first song of theirs that I had come across. In retrospect, its nervous dancey vibe is a perfect introduction to the experience of listening to Psycho Tropical Berlin, a vivid one hour long song that has a relentless twitchy winter dance groove to it, for the lack of summarizing suffixes to attach to this work, that invokes a wide spectrum of styles, if not such a range.

 

Upon being impressed by a few other songs from the album as well, I googled the translation for the lyric to Sur La Planche which read the title as ‘on a surfboard’ which perhaps justifies the restless darting energy it possesses; the founding members of La Femme hail from Biarritz, a coastal city in Southwestern France, making their affiliation with this unique variety of surf music meets Krautrock explained partially. But, I decided not to ever try to find out what each of these tracks meant because the appeal of the vocals functioning as an instrument of melody, tone, and texture alone was so interesting that if the lyric lived upto those standards I would’ve run out of superlatives. But what if it didn’t? Why bother? Half hearted apologies to the writers for not trying to understand the words who, apparently, considered singing in English too, but went with their native tongue French for comfort. The little that I have listened to French bands singing in English made me thank this choice of theirs.

 

The opening track, ‘Anti-taxi’ has the same jittery energy as ‘Sur Planche’ with dollops of eerie synths and bright reverb laden guitars. Next, with the title track, we get a sense of the familiarity that I was referring to earlier. There’s a good strain of bands such as The Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk etc. in their music which appears vicariously, channeling each of their vibes but presented in a highly marinated form. ‘La Femme’, ‘Interlude’, and ‘Hypsoline’ play out episodically; starting on a jungle beat with a smatter of sitars and spooky theremin-like sounds, then proceeding onto an ominous dramatic pause interrupted by stabbing synth sounds not without humor which then breaks into an oriental dance numberish stop start track. These three songs embody the continuum across the album, representing the essence of Psycho Tropical Berlin (The video for ‘Hypsoline’ actually spans across the three songs).

 

This mélange of styles and musical devices is topped off with ‘Sur la Planche’ and, needless to say, this is enough to win over the first time listener. But, shortly after, I stopped twice and gave up on the album. Unfortunately, with ‘It’s time to wake up’ and ‘Nous Étions Deux’ my amazement got done in both those times (Some people I know who have also listened to album do not mind these songs, so my verdict is subjective). These sounds were too derivative for my liking with The Who and Chemical Brothers invoked too abruptly. But, apparently this was a barrier I had to cross to reach greener pastures.

 

The album gets considerably darker and more mysterious from ‘Packshot’ onwards with sublime synths, and approaching the extremity of the Coldwave vibe of theirs with ‘Saisis La Corde’ and ‘Le Blues De Françoise’; two heavier and more meditative tracks. With ‘Si un jour’, ‘La Femme Ressort’, and ‘Welcome America’, the mood of the initial half of the album is brought up again completing a full circle.

 

Psycho Tropical Berlin is a great background record to listen to while working on sedentary jobs because often you would suddenly snap into the mood of the album and realize that you’ve been tapping your foot relentlessly. The album is so seamless, even the silences are filled with music. It’s minimalistic in terms of individual components shining through with passages, styles, and sounds swinging in and out. Apart from the general mystical vibe, the continuous backbeat along with improvised simple grooves is the Coldwave influence that the band’s style has been attributed to, namely acts like The Cure, Joy Division, and Little Nemo. Every song benefits from being heard in the context of the other songs and the deadpan, spoken word singing mixed with melodic phrases couldn’t have been more calculated, especially in bringing out the humor element that is essential as a counterpoint to the otherwise gothic treatment of it.

Mukul Menon

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