The captivating German songstress KATJA VON KASSEL finally brings out her first EP.
First making her name in London club nights like ‘Synthetic’ and ‘Bedsitland’, this 4 track release is the first opportunity for potential audiences to evaluate KATJA VON KASSEL and her Electro Weimer Cabaret as a body of work in one sitting. Singing in English, ‘Lili Marlene’ affirms her charismatic presence and singing in an alluring Marlene Dietrich tone with a sultry yet technostalgic quality.
Co-written with Alex Gray, the songwriter / producer who co-wrote ‘My Delirium’ and ‘Dusk ‘Til Dawn’ with LADYHAWKE, it really is like the ‘1930s meets the future’. Along similar lines and also sung primarily in English, ‘Lies’ is a marvellous synth friendly number with a strong traditional European flavour, laced with accordions and set to a tango template.
A song which actually made ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s 30 Songs of 2010, the Germanic GRACE JONES flavour is melancholically enticing and straight from the heart. If she was to ever cover a ROXY MUSIC number, then it would have to be Song For Europe’ with its neo-Piaf pastiche and nouveau sophistication.
With two quality songs already on offer, the purer pulsating electro of ‘In Little Rooms (Show Me Love)’ steals the show. It’s an aesthetic which closely resembles that of RONNY, a protégé of Rusty Egan who made several imaginative singles with luminaries such as Midge Ure, Peter Godwin and Vangelis. Alex Gray’s intricate filmic electronics on ‘In Little Rooms (Show Me Love)’ are a delight while Fraulein von Kassel’s detachment is art cool sexy.
The elegiac Deutsche waltz of ‘Himmel Brennt’ strips things down with hints of ‘Deer Stop’ or ‘Horse Tears’ from GOLDFRAPP’s cinematic debut ‘Felt Mountain’ and the influence of Berthold Brecht. Revealing KATJA VON KASSEL’s moody dramatic side, the title translates as ‘Heaven Burns’. “The tragedy of life is always a good inspiration to me” she once said.
KATJA VON KASSEL’s first EP is a refreshing musical antidote to the influx of hollow electronic acts that have appeared in the last two years. These are timeless, escapist songs and with their futuristic twist, they are very much needed in this current culture of tension.
The music industry can be a fickle mistress, one moment you’re flavour of the month, a few wrong steps later and before you know it you’re on a one-way elevator trip to Obscurityville.
Pip Brown AKA LADYHAWKE is undoubtedly acutely aware of this. Back in 2009 her slow burning self-titled debut album was immensely successful, clocking up Gold UK sales after word of mouth and support sets with THE PRESETS helped tracks such as ‘My Delirium’, ‘Professional Suicide’ and ‘Magic’ eventually reach an audience that they truly deserved.
Mixing a sound which was synth and New Wave heavy, but also crammed full of brilliant songwriting and quirky pop hooks, ‘Ladyhawke’ was in many ways ahead of its time, predating the eventual unstoppable electropop ascendency of KATY PERRY, TAYLOR SWIFT and ELLIE GOULDING. After gaining props from KYLIE and COURTNEY LOVE, it appeared that the world was seemingly at Ms. Brown’s feet, but rather than quickly capitalising on the debut album’s success, it took three years before releasing the much delayed ‘Anxiety’.
Instead of attempting to repeat the formula of her debut, ‘Anxiety’ saw a change in sound, hardly any synths or electronics, plus more guitars and a debut single ‘Black White & Blue’ that featured a chorus which unfortunately owed more than its fair share to THE BEE GEES ‘Tragedy’. Despite picking up some positive reviews, the consensus was that Pip Brown had lost sight of what made LADYHAWKE so marketable and successful in the first place…
So now, another four years later and LADYHAWKE returns with ‘Wild Things’ and guess what? Lessons have been learnt and the synths and electronics are back… album opener ‘A Love Song’ is pure unadulterated electronic pop, all syncopated synth bassline, electro drums, a soaring chorus to die for and mercifully no superfluous guitars or Rhodes electric pianos. ‘The River’ is a little more lightweight, but über-catchy with a “na-na-na” vocal hook and the kind of indie sound that you’d expect to hear when walking into Top Shop or River Island.
‘Wild Things’ is the first of two tracks here which owe more than a small debt to TEC favourites CHVRCHES, a stretched out ambient minute long synth pad intro leads into the kind of synth bass and sampled vocal hook favoured by Lauren Mayberry and co. A lighter drum sound and yearning chorus line (“We dance together like we’re wild things in the night”) mean that there’s enough here for the song to stand on its own merits though.
‘Let it Roll’ ups the tempo with skippy drums and again makes a welcome return to the more lo-fi sound of ‘Ladyhawke’ – guitars feature this time, but in a welcome funky New Wave-style vibe.
‘Sweet Fascination’ has a hypnotic synthetic and almost Jarre sounding bassline holding the track together with its chord progression recalling the work of TALKING HEADS.
‘Hillside Avenue’ is the second CHVRCHES-influenced track here, albeit with a splash of PURITY RING thrown in for good measure, again there’s the obligatory sampled vocal, although this time more obviously-so. But a Ragga-inflected kick / snare beat in the chorus just about keeps it from sounding like an out-and-out pastiche.
‘Money to Burn’ starts brilliantly like a PIXIES song played on synths, but unfortunately its chorus doesn’t quite live up to its killer intro and no track really needs a synth panpipe in it, does it? Album closer ‘Dangerous’ has a funky 16 beat arpeggiated Synth Wave bassline and another big, uplifting chorus. The track instrumentation here is beautifully minimalistic, which again is a sign of a well-written song, the more detailed vocal production featuring some subtly autotuned vocals and rounds off ‘Wild Things’ in an up manner.
Whilst never quite hitting the heights of the material on ‘Ladyhawke’, ‘Wild Things’ is at least a major improvement on ‘Anxiety’ and in a nutshell is the album that probably should have followed it. The writing and production is far more contemporary and apart from the two overtly CHVRCHES-style references, this aims to reclaim a sound that initially LADYHAWKE made her own.
Whether Pip Brown can continue to make up the ground lost with her second album is debatable, but at least this is a welcome step in the right direction.
‘Wild Things’ is released as a CD, vinyl and download by Mid Century Records
Although the “1930s meets the future” sound of German chanteuse KATJA VON KASSEL was first introduced via ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK in 2010, it has only been recently that her music has become available.
She was featured with the song ‘Lies’, a marvellous synth friendly number with a strong traditional European flavour, laced with accordions and set to a tango template in the manner of GRACE JONES’ ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before’. So what happened?
Her Electro Weimar Cabaret began to make waves in the independent music scene and she was invited to support ERASURE on their German dates in 2011. As a result, she was signed by a major label. However, as personnel changed around her, there was confusion within the label as to whether to promote her as an electro or chanson artist… sadly, the all too familiar spectre of record company politics prevented any releases.
Fast forward to 2016, and conventional record labels are no longer the necessity they once were, with platforms such as Spotify and Bandcamp allowing musicians to have more of a say in the artistic presentation of their work.
So the sultry presence of KATJA VON KASSEL is back with a monochromatic video to accompany the formal download release of ‘Lili Marlene’. Singing in both English and German in an alluring Marlene Dietrich tone, the song is a collaboration with Alex Gray, the songwriter / producer who co-wrote ‘My Delirium’ and ‘Dusk ‘Til Dawn’ with LADYHAWKE. It’s a very unique style of electronic pop that possesses a timeless yet technostalgic quality.
KATJA VON KASSEL has been making up for lost time with the purer pulsating electro of ‘In Little Rooms (Show Me Love)’ and the sparse ballad ‘Raindrops’ having both been issued earlier in the year. More songs are set to be unleashed in the next few months, with the cabaret schaffel of ‘Goodbye Was Never Said’ next in line.
It was Autumn 2008 and the mainstream press were getting excited about the new prospects for 2009 who were female, electro and had a name beginning with an ‘L’!
Caroline Sullivan’s article in The Guardian ‘Slaves To Synth’ highlighted female fronted electro friendly acts such as LA ROUX, LITTLE BOOTS and LADYHAWKE. Each achieved varying degrees of popularity with LA ROUX fronted by the “falsetto from the ghetto” Elly Jackson being the most internationally successful of the trio with a Grammy for Best Dance Album among the accolades.
Since then, things have not been so good for The L-Word trio with regards their follow-up albums; LADYHAWKE was first off the block with ‘Anxiety’, a horribly recorded guitar driven opus lacking in tunes. Meanwhile, LITTLE BOOTS parted ways with 679 / Atlantic Records and self-released ‘Nocturnes’, a disappointing collection of club oriented numbers that lacked the synthpop nous of her debut ‘Hands’.
Over at Camp LA ROUX, their sophomore offering was delayed while Jackson’s proclamation that “I don’t want to make synth music for the rest of my f*cking life” signalled all was not well, as pressure built to record the follow-up. So with the album finally complete, is ‘Trouble In Paradise’ going to make it three duffers from The L-Word trio?
The signs have not been good for this appropriately titled follow-up.
Four years have passed with rumours of a whole album of work scrapped plus there has been the parting of ways with silent partner Ben Langmaid, a crucial cog in the synthesized authenticity of the ‘La Roux’ debut.
Songs such as ‘In For The Kill’, ‘Bulletproof’, ‘Tiger Lily’, ‘As If By Magic’ and ‘Cover My Eyes’ were all superb electronic pop numbers that paid tribute to HEAVEN 17, DEAD OR ALIVE, THE KNIFE, BLANCMANGE and YAZOO respectively.
“Beware of biting the hand that feeds” they always say and certainly, there have been parallels with how DUFFY went about her second long player. Drunk on the success of her debut ‘Rockferry’, the Welsh songstress ditched her manager and the songwriting / production lynchpins that were a key part of its success. DUFFY was then last spotted riding a bike in a Pepsi advert and left with several thousand CDs of ‘Endlessly’ under her bed!
Langmaid does work on six of the tracks so effectively, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ is a goodbye from him and a hello to the solo Elly, aided by new production sideman Ian Sherwin. Despite her proclamations in 2008 by Jackson that “girls look wicked playing synths”, unlike her rival Victoria Hesketh, she has never actually been seen or photographed wielding such as a device, her instrument of choice being guitar.
So how does Elly Jackson get on without Langmaid in the ranks? The first track made public ‘Let Me Down Gently’ could be a sign. Despite the potentially prophetic title, it’s actually not bad and starts a bit like HURTS… a lot more electronic than expected but with more guitar than on the debut, it features a false end and then launches into something more uptempo with ‘Spacer’ / ‘China Girl’ (both Nile Rodgers productions incidentally) rock guitar solos thrown in for good measure. The musical palette is expanded, but something does seem to be missing.
The first single proper ‘Uptight Downtown’ takes an obviously enjoyable CHIC influence and fuses it with a funky dash of TOM TOM CLUB. Despite reservations from some quarters, this is a fine calling card for the album. This stomping direction had actually been showcased a few years ago when Jackson presented her I Don’t Mince My Words mix of female pop duo WAR OF WORDS’ single ‘Battleground’. Interestingly, Langmaid worked separately on a more obviously synthy remix for the track ‘Panic’… so signs of a possible division have been around a while.
The TOM TOM CLUB fun continues with ‘Kiss & Not Tell’ but this time, crossed with AMAZULU while ‘Tropical Chancer’ explores the sunnier climes of the legendary Compass Point Studios via GRACE JONES’ ‘My Jamaican Guy’. Certainly Jackson voice is less shrill on these songs than on the ‘La Roux’ debut, but this simultaneously makes her less distinctive as well. Ditto the fatter production style; the sound on ‘La Roux’ may have been deliberately thin but it stood out. But the result is that Elly Jackson could now be any number of pop stars around at the mo.
‘Cruel Sexuality’ takes on a triplet synth bassline and grainier string machine tones but the moodier demeanour lacks impact. The pace is taken down further for the lush piano assisted ballad ‘Paradise Is You’. But while ‘Sexotheque’ has a quite provocative title, in reality it is a polite disco song that perhaps isn’t quite as strong as ‘Uptight Downtown’ but enjoyable just the same.
The more boisterous seven minute ‘Silent Partner’ (a passing comment on Langmaid perhaps?) features plenty of synths and comes over like a Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer movie montage sequence number that should satisfy those with more nostalgic tendencies.
‘Trouble In Paradise’ ends though with the disappointing ‘The Feeling’ which washes over in a sea of voice samples and frantic offbeat drum programming although stylistically, this one most closely resembles the “falsetto from the ghetto” sound of the first album.
Overall, the nine songs on ‘Trouble In Paradise’ are a more enjoyable listen than either of LITTLE BOOTS and LADYHAWKE’s second offerings. It is telling though however, that the songs which have the strongest musical elements like ‘Uptight Downtown’, ‘Kiss & Not Tell’, ‘Let Me Down Gently’, ‘Sexotheque’ and ‘Tropical Chancer’ are all co-authored by Ben Langmaid.
In an environment where CHVRCHES have stolen the classic synthpop thunder and the more generic pop is laden with EDM clichés, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ sits uneasily where it has no unique personality of its own. Ironically, it sounds more 80s than LA ROUX’s debut ever did!
LA ROUX’s tour of the British Isles includes: Glasgow O2 ABC (5th Nov), Leeds Metropolitan University (7th Nov), Birmingham The Institute (8th Nov), Bristol O2 Academy(10th Nov), Norwich UEA (14th Nov), Oxford O2 Academy (15th Nov), Manchester Ritz (16th Nov), Belfast Limelight (19th Nov), Dublin Academy (20th Nov),
Electro Weimar Cabaret is the easiest way to describe the music of Katja von Kassel.
She sings in both German and English, often within the same song in a sultry Marlene Dietrich tone. After working within the UK music scene for several years including a stint as a guitarist on ‘X-Factor’, she was going to head back to Germany.
But luckily met producer and LADYHAWKE collaborator Alex Gray who co-wrote ‘My Delirium’ and ‘Dusk ‘Til Dawn’. He introduced her to the joys of electronic instrumentation and now with her synthetic torch songs, she appears to be in the right place, at the right time with the right music. Songs like ‘Goodbye Was Never Said’, ‘Riding The Horses’ and ‘Lili Marlene’ are electronic dance numbers with a cool, elegant charm. Alex Gray’s intricate production can be fully appreciated alongside Katja’s magnificent vocal presence. The arrangements are busy but uncluttered, giving plenty of space for Katja to hypnotise with her drama.
Add to that, the Wagnerian quality of Katja’s Götterdämmerung delivery when she’s lets rip with her emotions and you have a very unique style of modern electro that possesses a classic quality, electro revival or not! Katja’s moodier numbers ‘Raindrops’ and ‘Der Himmel Brennt’ not only recall ‘Deer Stop’ or ‘Horse Tears’ from GOLDFRAPP’s marvellous cinematic debut ‘Felt Mountain’, but also the influence of Berthold Brecht.
Her tremendous song ‘Lies’ features strong traditional European influences like French accordions and ‘Vienna’ piano but also has hints of being a dancier version of Grace Jones ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before’. Not entirely surprising as both songs are routed in the same dance… the tango. The stylish promo which accompanies it echoes her own words… it’s “1930s meets the future”. Welcome to the world of Katja von Kassel.