Somewhere between rock & roll and electronic music lies a strange new world. The region (because it can hardly be called a genre), increasingly explored by American and European artists, merges rock's songwriting and rhythmic muscle with electronica's detail-obsessive sound design. Fans and critics have turned to terms such as "indietronica" to try explaining the trend, in the cheerfully obfuscatory way of Internet mailing-list denizens. But don't get too attached to notions of a Third Way: Germany's Notwist has arrived to show us that this rocktronic mixture isn't an undiscovered terrain after all. In the hands of keen-eared songsmiths, it's nothing more than good old-fashioned pop music -- melody-based tuneage that could care less about the means of production, as long as it gives sad sacks something to nod along to.
As radiant as its title, the Notwist's Neon Golden is one of the year's best pop albums, a quirky conglomeration of ragged digital rhythms, cheerfully mopey lyrics and the clean, ringing guitars of classic shoegazer rock and indie pop. In the experimental spirit of the Beatles, no sound is off-limits: Banjos, string quartets and fuzzed guitars invoke the spirit of olde-tyme psychedelia even as deconstructed drum samples and glancing ambient chords suggest the perpetual futurism of electronic dance music. Despite the band's Bavarian heritage, English references are prevalent, from My Bloody Valentine's waves of feedback to New Order's stark, poignant twang. Neon Golden is a baker's dozen of perfectly polished baubles.
Singer Markus Acher, who moonlights in Lali Puna on the Morr Music label, woos listeners with a quiet, confessional style, hitting his notes like a drunken kiss misses the mouth. Sung in English, his lyrics are nothing special -- lines such as "I will never read your stupid map/So don't call me incomplete, you are the freak" could be culled from a high-schooler's notebook. It's the way he delivers them, in a downcast, half-tuneful murmur, that makes them perfect. Like a lover's sweet nothings, his words are irrelevant. It's the fact that he says them at all that matters, his voice pressed close and hushed into your neck, promising never to leave you. After all, what's pop music about, if not the promise of forever?