Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bettina Köster: Queen of Noise

Bettina Köster; photo by Val PhoenixAsinella Records
23 October release

I had an advance copy of this album a year ago and thought it would just be a matter of whacking it on CD and adding some album art. Well, more fool me, because it's obviously had a lot of mixing done since and is now in a totally different order, with changed titles and an additional song.

So, back to the beginning. Köster first started this record back in 2006 when she upped sticks from Berlin to rural Italy and has been working on it ever since, shifting to Vienna and Berlin for various stages.

The one track I hadn't heard proves to be the absolute standout: the cracked piano ballad "Pity Me", which is melodramatic as the title suggests. I am put in mind of a tux-clad Marlene Dietrich swanning around a candlelit cabaret regaling all and sundry with tales of her broken life. Cinematic doesn't begin to cover it.

Elsewhere the record is thoroughly modern, with an underpinning of electronica and squalling guitars. The sax she employed so prominently on her last project, Autonervous, is downplayed to a few atmospheric stabs.

The way she uses her voice is intriguing. I haven't heard such a dramatic shift since Marianne Faithfull returned from her heroin addiction with Broken English in 1979. Having dropped in pitch and tone from the swooping histrionics of Malaria!, Köster's voice now fits menacingly between Faithfull and Grace Jones. When she growls "Welcome to Regina's Diner" on "Regina" it is very much as the spider to the fly.

But the bold listener who enters this web is in for some very pleasant surprises. A Devo-esque tongue-in-cheek cover of "Helter Skelter" finds her dryly intoning rather than shouting. And the album closer "Thar She Blows" is a tender love song.

The bulk of the record is a shake-your-rump and get jiggy sexy workout. I have some quibbles with the running order, as I would have sequenced the bassy "Grab Me" and "Confession" at the start. The latter includes the teasing lyrics "I have been playing in the trash and I kissed a lot of frogs", which beg questions.

I met Bettina Köster in Vienna in summer 2008 for an interview, but as she was still mixing the album, we didn't discuss it much. Subsequently, I emailed her to ask about the record.

KB: The songs I have heard are all in English. Even as recently as the Autonervous record you were still writing in a mixture of English and German. So, why this change now?

BK: When I was recording Autonervous I was in Berlin, [but] now that I live in Italy, I speak much more English. Plus, English is my favorite language, as it is, in my opinion, much more concise.

What influence do your surroundings have on your writing, as far as language, subject, etc.?

Having recorded in the isolation that comes with being a foreigner in a population 500 town [and] not really being proficient in the local language, which is not even Italian but Neapolitan, gave me the oportunity to go deep into myself and deal with nothing but writing songs and recording.

Lyrically, there seem to be recurring words: water, confessions. What would you say are the themes of the record?

I love the water--maybe you remember my song "Kaltes Klares Wasser" [by Malaria!]. I do not care too much about swimming. I like it on the water but not in the water [and] I have grown up with boats. They mostly sink, but nevertheless. When I first came to the area in 1998, I sat on the beach of Positano, one of the Siren Islands right in front of me and I had the strong feeling of feeling familiar, having come from the water there.

Re: confession, I was very open with my lyrics and they are also most personal. And then, I'll have to admit, I kissed a lot of frogs. I confess that I was attracted to the red umbrella (something that is not good for you but that has an intense attraction) and also I kissed the devil's daughter at least once. Which really shattered my world for a moment... [Another lyric] "This procession is ending and leading right up to you" is the visualisation of the new person to enter my life.

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