(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Recording review - Berlin, Animal (2013)

Welcome the sexy beast into the electro-dance machine

Feel the fire/ Feel my love inside you/ It’s so right.” From the opening motorik drive and Terri Nunn’s seductive vocal, Berlin’s 1982 hit “Sex (I’m a…)” tapped into a host of repressed fantasies and helped sell New Wave flavored synthpop to the American masses. Now, 31 years later, the band is even more overt on the title track for Animal: “Looking up my little dress/ Does it make you want to take me now?” Instead of Krautrock influences, this intro is inspired by a Nine Inch Nails, synthed-out rock sound. The new album continues Berlin’s evolution—actually, it shows how Nunn has developed. The band fell apart after their commercial peak, Top Gun’s “Take My Breath Away”, and she resurrected the band name in 1998. This is the third album since then, with an eight year gap after the last one, 4Play (2005).

The band’s early hits like “Metro” and “No More Words” didn't hide their danceable roots. This latest incarnation of Berlin takes that a step further, embracing electronic dance music by appropriating throbbing bass grinds, glitchy breakdowns and escalating synth whines. “Animal” throws down its club-friendly gauntlet with all of this and more. The last track, “Animal (Remix)”, doubles down and takes the song and all of its raw sexual energy deeper into the machine. The album works so well because Nunn found the perfect resource for tapping into that electronic vein, producer John King (The Dust Brothers). He brings continuity to the album without robbing the tracks of individuality.

Regardless of the trappings of beeps and beats, it’s still easy to hear the soul of Berlin’s original sound. More than Nunn’s voice alone, it’s there in the structure of the songs, the New Wave melodies and provocative darkness. Take the catchy “Break the Chains” for example. It’s reminiscent of the band’s older material, but it’s been dressed up for contemporary tastes with some bubbly synth and a beat-heavy electropop groove. The lyrics alternately seduce and cajole: surrender to the physicality of the rhythm and break loose from the bondage of guilt and self-judgment.

Nunn doesn't shy away from the band’s more standard pop moments either. “It’s The Way” is a thoughtful love song that finds common ground with “Take My Breath Away”, showing that she still has sweet vocal tone and diva chops. A few songs later, on “Blame the World”, she pushes her voice into this power ballad inspired by her damaged relationship with her father. Her emotional delivery shows that she’s built on her earlier skills and, if anything, her singing has improved in the intervening decades. Near the end of the album, Nunn gets soulful on a paean to her single mother, “Mom”. The track starts out with a solid piano accompaniment along with some light synth comping. Subtle touches of electronica slip in and out, but never distract from the earnest love of the song.

In their heyday, Berlin stood out for a unique blend of sharp lyrics, challenging attitude and pop sensibility. Danceable rhythms found common ground with edgy writing, tempered by Nunn’s captivating persona and the band’s slick production. Ultimately, none of that has changed. EDM has superseded synthpop, but they’re drawing from the same well. Nunn’s expressive voice, which could shift from vulnerable innocence to wicked temptation, once carried the band. Animal shows that she’s still every bit the earnest child and sexy beast.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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