I Know You Know
Know You Know is the latest installment in Morr Music’s ongoing foray into song-based electronica, following Lali Puna’s Scary World Theory, Ms. John Soda’s No P. or D. , and Styrofoam’s I’m What’s There To Show That Something’s Missing. The latter three register as defensible, legitimate recordings, no matter how ill-disposed a given listener’s attitude might be towards the genre. But Guther’s music veritably invites critical vitriol and disdain, given the ‘innocent’ aura it perpetuates so fulsomely without a single trace of irony. The band, comprised of Julia Guther and Berend Intelmann, produces a frothy, melodic pop that aims to be charming and unpretentious but is taken to such a naive extreme that many will find it unbearably grating. And yet, while its teen-flavoured lyrical content can be understandably off-putting, it’s also melodically infectious and, as such, offers listening pleasures, no matter how guilt-ridden they might be.
Guther’s pop songs are summery and sweet in spirit, lyrically simple and instrumentally uncluttered. The recording has an understandably intimate and sparse feel, given that it was done at their Berlin apartment, yet it’s far from skeletal. Produced with a computer, synthesizer, and a drum machine, the songs’ vibes, jangly guitars, lead bass, and subtle electronics combine to form a ‘60s-era pop mélange. Julia’s singing is slightly reminiscent of Ms. John Soda’s Stephanie Böhm in that both share an affectless, monotone delivery (unlike Lali Puna’s Valerie Trebeljhar’s which is incredibly sensual by comparison). Musically, the songs are laden with melodic hooks. ‘The Other Day’ moves elegantly through numerous episodes, beginning sparsely with voice and guitar, and then joined by a lead bass and simple drumbeat. It’s the subsequent addition of multi-tracked vocal counterpoint, maracas, and vibes that turns it into a delectable piece of ear candy. Other musical highlights include the handclaps and chiming guitars on ‘Boys Do Not Think,’ the vibes on ‘You,’ the mellow shoegazing of ‘What She Felt,’ and the juxtaposition of languid vocal lines with faster instrumental underpinning (‘Personal Confusion’ and ‘Trouble You Cause’). The strongest track, ‘Taglieben,’ is melodically irresistible, with its unadorned piano melody adding a melancholy strain that runs throughout the song. On the down side, ‘We Walk’ lacks a strong melody to complement its lush strings, and an egregiously twee quality emerges when birds are heard chirping behind an acoustic guitar on ‘Deepest Blue’ and, worst of all, when a recorder appears on ‘Complaint.’
The lyrics, however, are the weakest aspect of I Know You Know. Penned by Julia, they inhabit a realm better suited to adolescent girls, one dominated by teen-flavoured ruminations on love lost and found. Lyrics like ‘There must be someone like you who turns the night into day’ and ‘ Lying there wondering what’s on your mind/Makes me feel so blind cause I can’t look behind your eyes’ are banal, too reminiscent of some young girl’s heartfelt diary confessions. Of course, Guther is hardly the first group to be criticized for trite lyrics. While Brian Wilson’s early songs for The Beach Boys demonstrated an ever-evolving musical sophistication, they often were coupled with lyrics preoccupied with teenage topics like girls and cars. Eventually, however, the rococo abstractions of Van Dykes’ lyrics helped elevate The Beach Boys’ music to a higher artistic realm on Smile and Surf’s Up. Between these extremes, of course, stands Pet Sounds, Brian’s compositional collaboration with lyricist Tony Asher where Brian’s musical and instrumental genius were wedded indelibly to Asher’s heartfelt romanticism. As Pet Sounds’ songs recount the stages of a relationship from its beginning to end with all the heartbreak that that implies, Asher’s lyrics articulate with the greatest economy the deep feelings that inhabit romance’s tumultuous emotions. Consider, for example, the tenderness of ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’ (‘Come close, close your eyes and be still/Don’t talk, take my hand and listen to my heart beat/Listen, listen, listen’) or the naked devotion of ‘God only knows what I’d be without you.’
Discordance between great music and banal lyrics is found in other contexts too. For example, Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne) offers some of the most sublime classical music ever created. ‘Baïlèro,’ its most well-known song, is musically transcendent and gorgeous yet its French lyrics recount a banal dialogue sung between a shepherd and shepherdess across mountain pastures. Similarly, while the first stanza of ‘La Pastour als Camps’ translates into the simple ‘When the shepherdess went to the pastures to tend her little ewes, a fine gentleman came by and looked at her,’ it’s musically speaking a breathtaking vocal and orchestral union. In short, I Know You Know is not alone in adopting a simple approach to its lyrical content. French singing fortuitously conceals the mundane lyrical dimension of Canteloube’s songs, whereas Julia Guther’s lyrics have no such veil to protect them. And while Asher’s lyrics, too, are straightforward, the critical difference is that Pet Sounds’ lyrics convey timeless emotions succinctly and eloquently, whereas Guther’s words inhabit a teenage level that seems frivolous by comparison. Of course, one might be equally critical of Lali Puna lyrics like ‘I’ve never said you’ll have to be afraid of the cookie monster beside your bed’; what compensates here for the weakness in the lyrics is the incredible quality of the musical composition and Trebeljahr’s vocal. Similarly, Brian Wilson’s musical genius can make up for any lack in the words department. Conversely, Guther’s music, while offering a generous amount of musical pleasure, is not as distinguished, comparatively, and thereby struggles to counter the weaker lyrical quality.
Reviewed by: Ronald Schepper
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01