No. P. or D.
By: Eric Greenwood
A band with a bad name can come up with the goods, occasionally, especially when said band features a member of The Notwist behind the controls. The Notwist's Neon Golden hit me harder than any other album in 2002; its mix of sparse electronics, sputtering, minimal beats and plaintive melodies gelled into one of the finest pop albums I've ever had the pleasure of being obsessed with. Ms. John Soda traverses similarly otherworldly terrain to its German kin on its debut full-length, No P. Or D. – not at the same level of staggering genius – mind you, but still very worthy of your attention.
Despite its deliberately off-putting title, No P. Or D. is immediately beguiling, as Micha Acher's glitchy experimentalism bubbles within the context of pure, unadulterated dance pop. Stefanie Bohm's voice is monochromatic, robotic even, as it presents the same bored detachment that Stereolab's Lateitia Sadier has built a career upon. The moody opener, "Technicolor", builds slowly around Acher's layered synthetics and futuristic soundbursts. Once the lazy beat kicks in, Bohm's reticent voice bends around the repetitive, polyrhythmic progression, lulling you into its hypnotic snare.
The structure of "Misco" may be lifted straight from New Order's analogue versus electronics playbook, but it gives even prime New Order a run for its money. The way the dourly melodic bass line interlaces with the simple, shuffling beats (both organic and programmed) is dead on. The bouncy undercurrent is misleading. It's one of those songs where the melody sort of languishes above a den of propulsive momentum, and this dichotomy is the formula that bands like The Smiths used to make its sulky disciples dance whilst wallowing in self-pity. In other words, it's genius.
"Go Check" drops the sullen intrigue for a more direct pop approach. Here Ms. John Soda sounds like Broadcast, losing some of its experimental edge but certainly not its knack for hooks. Bongos, overdriven keyboards, tambourines, and fuzzed out low-end lead a kitschy, retro soundtrack in which Bohm coos like a Japanese pixie circa 1964. The acoustic bass and plucking strings that open "Solid Ground" are obvious and expected tips of the hat to The Notwist. The sad piano line follows Bohm's mournful vocal line, which seems to lack the depth or character of The Notwist's Marcus Acher.
Acher's ability to layer while retaining a sparse atmosphere is best evidenced in the meandering stoicism of "By Two's", in which Bohm's ghostly whisper trickles in amongst diverging plucks and plonks. The intensity picks up in the final minute, leading up to the ominous opening notes of the driving "Unsleeping." The carefully controlled tension of the guitar and bass interplay reveals that the British post-punk trail extends even to Germany's clubs. Bohm's aloofness melds perfectly with the cold synthetics. The robotic vocal effects on "Hiding/Fading", while very Kid A, add to Acher's mystique behind the soundboard. He knows exactly when to deconstruct his pop confections, lest they start to sound predictable.
A warm organ underscores the infectious "Elusive" while Acher piles on twitching atmospherics, but it's the vocal melody that steals the spotlight. Bohm loses some of her reserve and actually involves herself in the emotion of the lyric ("looking back on failings we once made/illusion framed with games we played/we're getting back what humans took away/and now we can't recall these days"). It's by far the album's most impressive song, and as a closer – as the last hand bell rings – it leaves you wanting. In fact, No. P. Or D. is a bit of a tease in itself, but it leaves the distinct impression that Ms. John Soda is capable of – and will quite probably produce – even greater things in the future. This is a debut, after all.