Safe and Sound
By Mark Abraham | 13 February 2008
His temperate disco a type that moves like the popped gasp of a soda can, Justus Köhncke blurs the boundaries between smooth and sweat. Doppelleben (2005), led by the smoothly stringent “Timecode (Edit),” built a frenetic dance album out of a bass line that, divorced from Köhncke’s context, would probably best have complemented a cartoon character’s delusions. Safe and Sound follows in much the same way; a satisfactory shuffle through ebullience and beauty marked by buoyant synth work and grinding undercurrents. Hell, opener “Yacht” is pretty much the mission statement in that sense, curling arps unfolding over ticking percussives and sparse bass taps between a mesh of portamentoed pads. But “Yacht” also points to a criticism one might have of Köhncke: his albums are fun, of course, but they often sound like a synthesis of every popular groove that precedes them.
Does that matter? I’m not sure I’m even levying a criticism there, beyond noting that you can hear the crisp bubbling leads of recent Dial records, the filtered percussion of Villalobos, the drive and funk of Justice, and all the usual Kompakt curios. And I’m just using popular benchmarks from the past year, really—in some ways Köhncke’s tracks, whenever wedged onto a Total X comp, have always sounded like all the good bits of everything that surrounds them. And, I mean, Köhncke is so good at marshalling what might be discursive ideas for lesser artists, so it’s hard to fault him for it, but I guess I mention this to clarify: Safe and Sound won’t fundamentally alter the way you think about dance music—it isn’t a new direction for 2008—but goddamn if it isn’t a really nice primer on 2007. And the music is just a riot good time besides.
Köhncke uses his “Timecode” trick where simple drums pulse beneath complex synths on “Molybdän” to excellent effect; the track is allowed to subside and sustain without ever really losing focus. He sort of modifies the trick for “Love and Dancing (Update).” A revisioning of his 2007 contribution to Total, he nails the way those backing chords slide—like, reverse slide—off those beats to skew the tempo; he gets a similar effect with those jazz drum shuffles embedded in the mix. “Parage,” which I’m going to assume translates as “a shit load of bliss,” is a fucking fantastic little track that marries those arpy synths less obviously to Köhncke’s sound by making them belt out disco melodies. The echoes and resonance fall back in on themselves down the corridors of the music. “(It’s Gonna Be) Alright” plays on, like, D’Angelo-type soul in a similar way, Bristoling the shit out of a gorgeous little organ riff. Köhncke’s singing is no worse than your usual electro-fare; it’s a bit high in the mix, maybe, but this is the most macro track so it tends to work.
It’s when Köhncke tries to get sentimental that things get problematic. “Freuerland” attempts to do a dance remake of a “Midnight Cowboy” vibe but, I mean, what’s up with those drums? It sounds like high school A/V club until about four minutes in, and even though it becomes pretty cool at that point that’s four minutes of hackneyed brooding and not a cowboy in sight. It’s only when the track stops pretending to be sinister that it becomes decent. “Tilda” is…weird, I guess. I like the idea, but the obvious way the resonators are used sounds very Ableton-preset to me; it’s not enough to deep-six the track, necessarily, but it distracts from the beauty in ways that are detrimental. Beyond this complaint, however, you get a very pretty piece of music that sounds like what Radiohead tries and fails to do a lot of the time with their more ambient stuff. “Spukhafte Fernwirkung” leaves me feeling similarly underwhelmed; both tracks are like when a really neat idea on Project Runway is obviously unfinished.
“$26” gears up the album for a close with one of Köhncke’s most out tracks yet: ricocheted kicks and percussion lope around a churning synth line for most of the track’s duration until some ’90s prog-dinosaur keyboards rise in the mix to add an entirely different texture. The title track is a risk in an entirely different way: tonally, it may be the strangest thing Köhncke has done, what with all the stilted rockishness of the lead. It’s the way that Köhncke builds other sounds around this completely unintuitive riff that really makes the track fascinating—it’s engaging precisely because he navigates about 20 things happening at once and still comes out the other end with a jam. And, really, that’s the kind of license you have to give him—it’s going to be cheesy, and it’s going to be bright, but it’s going to be a blast. At least for the most part.