Dig the Neu! Breed

The road of life is an endless series of disappointments; the sooner you accept that, the smoother the ride gets. But there are ways to circumnavigate some of those letdowns. One is to approach any artist or album that is "critically acclaimed" with extreme skepticism and caution.

I learned this the hard way. In the mid-'80s, I paid through the nose for an Italian reissue of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, because Creem once proclaimed it "The Greatest Album in the World." I excitedly slapped it on the stereo, and out came a wall of unbearable white noise. I checked the connections, the phonograph needle; everything was fine—except the fact that I'd wasted a whole Saturday mowing lawns to purchase four sides of shrieking feedback.

Krautrock duo Neu!--multi-instrumentalists Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger—have inspired some of the most hyperbolic praise ever. Brian Eno once commented, "There were three great beats in the '70s: Fela Kuti's Afrobeat, James Brown's funk, and Klaus Dinger's Neu!-beat." But let's be honest: Eno's dropped some stinkin' turds in his career. So when I learned that Neu!'s albums were being reissued amidst much ballyhoo— members of Blur and Sonic Youth spew glowing quotes in the press kit—my defenses went up. Fortunately, these days I can get my hands on new music without winding up covered in sweat and grass clippings.

Rother and Dinger were early members of Kraftwerk, but split away when their musical vision diverged from Ralf Htter and Florian Schneider's. For years, folks who actually heard Neu! records have sworn Stereolab is just a Neu! cover band. But confirming those accusations was nigh impossible, because the group's three key releases—Neu! (1971), Neu!2 (1973), and Neu!75 (1975, duh)—were long out of print. Dinger, who seems to have a boner for lawsuits (he wrangled with his subsequent band, La Dusseldorf, too, even though his brother was a member), fought their release for a decade.

Neu!, produced by Conny Plank, opens with "Hallogallo," a 10-minute spiral of metronomic drumming and spacey guitar far too precise and clean to call funky, even though it still exerts the rhythmic drive of any P-funk jam. "Negativland" (from whence the U2 foes took their moniker) kicks off with quiet, metallic echoes like hubcaps singing; the closer, "Lieber Honig," is a spare, proto-sadcore ditty that kicks Cat Power's cringing ass.

One of my measures of an album's merit is the mood it generates in my apartment. Neu! turned out to be a fantastic ambient album, not in the coming-down-off-drugs sense, but for smoothing out real-world bumps. The birds incessantly chirping, my yuppie neighbors firing up the barbecue grill—Neu! enveloped these sounds that normally bug the hell out of me and neutralized ("Neu!tralized"?) them. Neu! is more soothing than anesthesia (except for that sudden burst of jackhammers, which Neu! deployed as instruments long before Einstrzende Neubauten).

Another gauge of greatness is whether a disc inspires lucid dreaming (that weird state in between sleep and reason that Buddhists are hung up on). Alas, Neu!2 won't be joining such Music for Naps classics as the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy and Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One in my pantheon. Rother and Dinger ran out of funds after recording just 20 minutes of music, so they beefed up the album by recording "Neuschnee" and "Super" at different phonograph speeds—a neat bit of chicanery, but irritating to listen to. The disc also incorporates scratching; not the kind DJ Grand Wizard Theodore invented a few years later, but literally a needle abruptly skating across vinyl. Neu!2 is essentially the precursor to the contemporary cash-in known as the remix album, and as such is wildly inconsistent and only for ardent fans.

All is forgiven with Neu!75, a masterpiece David Bowie praised on German television even as he appropriated elements of Neu! for Station to Station. The creative tensions that fueled the band were nearing a breaking point. The first half (i.e., side one) is dominated by the amiable spirit of Rother; "Leb Wohl," a marriage of gentle piano chords with waves lapping at a beach, falls somewhere between those Environments albums and Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk. Dinger's half is edgier. His guttural vocals on "Hero" and "After Eight" recall the Fall's Mark E. Smith and Johnny Lydon, respectively, while the tense, sinewy guitars presage Wire and Magazine.

Neu! devotees vow that the band's chugging rhythms are ideal for driving. I didn't road test this theory because I hate feeling like I'm in a car commercial. Regardless, I emphatically encourage anybody who likes any two or more of the artists mentioned in this column (or System 7, Beta Band, Radiohead, Melody Unit . . .) to purchase Neu! and Neu!75 immediately. You will not regret it. But if you do, I'll come over and mow your lawn.

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