Claudia Brücken and Andrew Poppy
or an art form whose supposed pinnacle captures The Moment—The Here And Now—the temptation for pop music to look back at itself has been virtually Orphean in its irresistibility. From McCartney’s penchant for vaudeville pastiche to progressive rock’s hamfisted appropriation of neoclassical formalism to the Sex Pistols’ nihilist desecration of “Rock Around the Clock,” such perennial gazing in the rearview has always carried the whiff of fatalistic overtones—a tacit admission that the “true” definitive statements—from Bruckner to Berlin to Berry—had already been made. Whether they were to be developed or destroyed—well, that was another story.
On Trevor Horn’s ambitious Zang Tuum Tumb imprint in the 1980’s, Claudia Brücken and Andrew Poppy had ample opportunity for mythmaking and deconstruction alike. As lead singer of German synth-outfit Propaganda (and later as one half of Act, with Thomas Leer), Brücken gave voice to Horn’s ongoing obsession with Abba, fashioning the brilliant A Secret Wish, a masterpiece of baroque synth-pop that was equal parts pop art and Josef K-inspired post-punk. The pertly-named Poppy was barking up another, though not unrelated tree; a formally trained composer, he flaunted a remarkable gift for texture within polyrhythmic composition on two predominantly orchestral ZTT releases (The Beating of Wings and Alphabed), pitting him somewhere between the hardcore European minimalist school led by Louis Andriessen and early Cabaret Voltaire.
Given such credentials, it may come as a surprise that Another Language is neither synth-driven nor orchestral, but rather a sparsely arranged collection of covers. Of course, there have been few cover sets like this; even at their most willfully postmodern, Bryan Ferry or Tom Jones never tackled songwriters like Billy Mackenzie, Radiohead and Elvis all in a single bound, while still making room for a nice Franz Schubert lied. For all the compositional diversity, however, Another Language deftly steers clear of outright eclecticism, largely because if the choice of material is generally inspired (MacKenzie’s “Breakfast”, McAlmont & Butler’s “You Do”), the performances are equally so.
But it’s when the two meet that the real fireworks go off. Where the Broadway flourish of David Bowie’s “Drive-In Saturday” has long been screaming for the epic piano treatment it receives here, Frank Black’s “White Noise Maker” certainly hasn’t. And yet here the latter song—track nineteen on the hit-and-miss Teenager of the Year—is positively transformed into a marvel of polytonal and melodic innovation—the kind of revelation that sends the listener back to the original wondering what they’d been missing. That sense of vitality pervades Another Language; even when it trends toward the obvious, an excerpt from Schubert’s bleak song-cycle, Die Winterreise, Poppy twists convention, in this instance performing the accompaniment not on piano, but guitar.
Indeed, the record is a defining moment for the composer/arranger. Long exiled to the contemporary concert music world with only the occasional pop string arrangement for the likes of The The, Poppy handles the disparate pop material with a genuine verve—as if deprived of his beloved orchestra, he were determined to wring every last melody and harmony from his solitary instrument. Particularly on the album’s centerpiece, a reflective take on Kate Bush’s euphoric “Running Up That Hill,” Poppy’s accompaniment supports Brücken’s cool alto with a supple lyricism, its chromatic use of parallel fourths drawing out of the song a melancholy only hinted at by the programmed Fairlight textures of the original.
Yet only with Another Language’s concluding track, Elvis Presley’s “Wooden Heart,” does the title of the record become clear. As Brücken sings the final verse of the childlike melody in German, Poppy comps along on Fender Rhodes, interpreting the Fifties pop standard the composer once acknowledged was his “first clear musical memory as a child.” It’s a moving moment—one that reminds how sometimes only when speaking in something other than our native tongue do we really have anything to say.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2005-02-03