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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Can: Flow Motion


1) I Want More; 2) Cascade Waltz; 3) Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die; 4) ...And More; 5) Babylonian Pearl; 6) Smoke (Ethnological Forgery Series No. 59); 7) Flow Motion.

This is where the fans really went nuts — Can scoring a commercial dance hit on the UK charts? Perfidy! But in fact, Flow Motion is quite a chivalrous and tasteful continuation of the band's search for a compromise between musical experimentation and public acceptance. Had most of these tracks appeared on a David Bowie record, they would probably be encountered with praise by the critical community, since Bowie was a «pop» artist by definition, and his embracing of «progressive» values within a pop context was always welcome; on the other hand, Can, who with these albums were sort of meeting «pop standards» halfway, were scolded not because of the actual quality of the music, but because of their trajectory, which is frankly unfair.

The trick is that Can are not simply playing funk, reggae, and pop on Flow Motion: they are playing Can-style funk, reggae, and pop, which means that they will do everything possible to populate these conventional musical structures with odd sounds and strange atmospheres. Take the hit itself, ʻI Want Moreʼ — it's odd from the very start, with the first rhythm guitar part soun­ding like an old Bo Diddley part from ʻMonaʼ, and the second, joining in ten seconds later, soun­ding like a contemporary Talking Heads funky groove. It's a simple combination, but somehow from the very first start it adds a bit of a psychedelic dimension to the track, where your mind gets trapped between the two interlocking rhythms and tossed to and fro like a basketball. And that's just the beginning, because then you get a New Wavish synth hook, ghostly echoey vocals, additional layers of distorted guitars and keyboard loops — again, if your average dance track were produced with that much care and creativity... well, it wouldn't be too good, because most people would be too entranced to actually do much dancing.

Or ʻCascade Waltzʼ — it actually is a waltz, playing in diligent 3/4 time, but the rhythm guitar is chopping out... reggae chords, making this arguably the first instance of an actual reggae waltz on record. With the cascades in question probably symbolized by the slide guitars, which give the whole thing a bit of a Hawaiian feeling, I am not even sure any more what it is I am listening to: a bizarre stylistic combo with an atmosphere of lazy, dreamy, colorful relaxation. For ʻLaugh Till You Cryʼ, Karoli picks up a Turkish baǧlama, but the band carries on with a Caribbean stylistics, playing an equally relaxed slow ska pattern that agrees very well with the song's slogan — "laugh till you cry, live till you die", and when people tell you that, if you call yourself Can, then you're supposed to keep on producing tracks that turn your subconscious outside out and expose to the world its darkest, smelliest corners, just let them know how much you care by writing more songs like ʻBabylonian Pearlʼ (which sounds like the band's tribute to Roxy Music).

All right, if you do want some darkness, there's always the title track, which seems to also have begun life as variations on a ska/reggae groove, but is more in line with Can's traditional ways of jamming. Largely instrumental, it builds upon the interlocking patterns of Schmidt's keyboards, faintly resonating from some faraway corridors or deep waterholes, and Karoli's heavily pro­cessed guitars, for some of which he uses the wah-wah and the phasing effect at the same time, producing some fairly devilish sounds. There's a Hendrix vibe here, too, and a Funkadelic one, perhaps, but all in a nice shroud of Teutonic darkness; and whoever would want to ask questions like "what are these Germans doing covering black people's music?", well, just remember that the band's first vocalist was actually black, and that the band's actual musical roots had always been in the blues rather than in Bavarian folk songs or The Ring.

If there's one single complaint I'd have to voice, it's that for the first time, I do not notice the rhythm section all that much. It's there, for sure, and doing a good job, but I do not feel a great deal of involvement on the part of Czukay, and there's not a single jaw-dropping rhythm pattern from Liebezeit, either (perhaps he was just getting the hang of that whole reggae thing, and re­mained content to be relegated to quasi-apprentice status for the time being). That is not good, be­cause ultimately Can is first and foremost about the rhythm, and only later about everything else; and it is hardly a coincidence that Czukay's duties would only diminish from then on, until his complete resignation from active player status in 1978. But whatever might have been the reason for this change, Flow Motion has plenty of cool things going on to compensate, and remains in­dispensable listening, I'm sure, for everyone who does not spend half of one's lifetime standing round the corner and waiting for a nice occasion to shout SELLOUT! as if it really mattered. Most definitely a thumbs up.

1 comment:

  1. My first listen to this album many years ago was that of horror, being accustomed to their sound from the'classic' late 60s period up to 1974. To me, Flow Motion initially sounded like something from Olivia Newton John's 'Physical' period, but thankfully I've grown to appreciate that this album is quite a worthy piece in the Can catalog.

    Listening to "Smoke" today, I realised it reminded me of Tago Mago in some sections, and frankly I prefer this to Aumgn and Peking O. I might be crazy, but that's how I feel about "Smoke".

    And the title track is a very cool way to conclude an interesting album that took many years for me to appreciate.