Barbara Morgenstern

Sweet Silence

(Monika/Monika Enterprise; 2012)

By Conrad Amenta | 4 July 2012

Way back in 2006, I wrote the following of Barbara Morgenstern’s occasionally quite good The Grass Is Always Greener: “Previous collaborations with To Rococo Rot and Thomas Fehlmann tend to paint Morgenstern with an experimentalist brush, but her music, and particularly the predominantly piano-based The Grass Is Always Greener, is electro-pop through and through,” and “I haven’t heard an album with halves this noticeably inconsistent in quality since Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ Shake the Sheets, but the contrast between Side A and Side B shouldn’t distract from that The Grass Is Always Greener is at least fifty percent outstanding.”

So, yes, I was an even worse writer back in 2006. The point of cutting and pasting from my last review, though, is that though Barb and I have lost touch in the years between, and I’ve missed out on a couple of her releases, if her latest is any indication Morgenstern’s at least as artistically stagnant as I am. Everything I said, right down to the imbalanced track list, still applies.

Morgenstern is still writing pretty electro-pop that either gushes with hackneyed sentimentality or hums along with drive and purpose. It’s just that Sweet Silence suffers the same problems as The Grass Is Always Greener, which is that Morgenstern seems uninterested in stretching her legs and running with these ideas. Songs are hemmed into compact, claustrophobic spaces—only one song here is longer than four minutes—and though each will bubble pleasantly along, none reach the kinetic heights of, say, Ellen Allien. (An easy or convenient reference here, I admit.) Worse, the lyrics are often the sort of quasi-profundities one expects from a writer trying to say something important. On “Jump Into the Life-Pool” (yup, it’s called that), Morgenstern wonders why she is the person she is, fate v. chance, Run Lola Run, blah blah blah. You’re not going to get new insight on the most existential of human quandaries if you’re only going to dedicate three minutes to the subject.

It’s too bad, because each song is an example of amicable wash, well-chosen tones, intuitive rhythms, and restrained writing. The title track opens the album with a noir shuffle, and Morgenstern’s vocal melody seems to make a dance partner of a blooping keyboard line. It only hits its nice chorus twice and then ends, suddenly, as if prematurely edited to a close. The silly “Need to Hang Around” then follows, in which Morgenstern sings in blunt literalisms and transitions awkwardly to minor chords. Again, the song would benefit from some patience, especially when, at about the two-and-a-half minute mark, she layers some nice additional tones in techno hits over the verse. She could have stretched that shit out another couple of minutes and grown our investment in the song.

Weirdly, while each of the songs is too short, the album itself is too long. Some of the thirteen tracks here, like the over-before-it-starts “Kookoo,” the noodly “Auditorium,” the minute-long “Bela,” and “Hip Hop Mice” (…yup, it’s called that), seem like underdeveloped sketches. They don’t deserve to be album cuts, especially alongside better pieces. “Highway” is a nice piece of minimalist writing (minimalism not to be confused with underwritten pop, as it strips away to greater effect as opposed to just sitting there without any idea where to go). “Night-Time Falls,” like the album opener, has a nice little shuffle beat that drags Morgenstern toward being danceable, and the lyrics approach vulnerability as she speaks about spending the night with some faceless promoter.

It’s strange to think that Barbara Morgenstern is now eight (!) albums into her career. She’s obviously got an ear for melody, but is still struggling with such blocky songwriting themes and obvious aesthetic touchstones. I want to think she’s a better musician than this.