(Are You) Ready to Be Heartbroken? (Or, Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe)

On paper, the pairing of Lloyd Cole and Hans-Joachim Roedelius might strike one as, well, odd. Cole, of course, is a British singer-songwriter best known for his ‘80s output with his band the Commotions, and his subsequent work as a solo performer. Roedelius, on the other hand, is a noted ‘70s krautrock superstar who had tenure in the bands Cluster and Harmonia, not to speak of the fact that he collaborated with the likes of Brian Eno and has released a raft of ambient and new age recordings. However, the pairing might not be quite as strange as it might seem. You see, Cole has actually dabbled in electronica, most notably with his 2001 album Plastic Wood. It turns out a friend of Cole’s who knew Roedelius sent the latter a copy of the record, and Roedelius was so smitten by the release that he produced a sort of remix version of the album consisting of overdubs to the existing tracks. Cole wound up hearing the results, and was reportedly flattered, but felt that Plastic Wood had run its course, so the idea of a proper Roedelius remix of the album was shelved. (Maybe we’ll get it hear it, someday.) Despite that, the possibility of working together reared its head from time to time and the pair maintained contact, and a decade later, the pair finally met in person when Cole passed through Vienna on tour. And thus begat their new album of material, Selected Studies Vol. One. However, the pair actually never worked in the flesh in the studio, instead opting to send each other files across the ether, similar to how the Postal Service’s lone album and many a Robert Pollard collaboration has been produced.

Now, if you’re a fan of Cole’s but had never heard of his electronic leanings, this record is going to strike you as cold. There’s no vocals on any of the 10 tracks presented here, nor is there any guitar, nor is there any percussion to speak of aside from the odd tapping noises here and there (particularly on “Fehmarn F/O”). So the Lloyd Cole of ““Are You) Ready to be Heartbroken?” fame is not apparent anywhere. In fact, you might take that song title and apply it to this release—it might just break your heart if you were expecting more caustic takes on romance in Cole’s usual format. Or you might take the title of one of his solo albums, Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe and use it here as well—this is pretty oddball, off-the-wall type stuff. In fact, dear reader, I have to say that on my first listen to this album, I absolutely hated it and was completely thrown, and was steeling myself to pen a review that I’m sure I would have gotten chewed out over in the comments section with the usual tripe that if a reviewer doesn’t understand an album, they’ll give it a low score. (Trust me, and not to get meta on you, but this has happened to me a few times already, and I’m quite sick of it—I’m really supposed to like each and every thing that comes onto my reviewing plate so that fans can just rubber stamp their approval?).

Well, I’m happy to report that Selected Studies Vol. One does grow on you with repeated listens, though I’m not sure if that has anything to do with lowered expectations or the fact that this material kind of sneaks up on you and affects you in profound ways. In fact, I do think that much of this stuff would work even better as a soundtrack to some utopian fantasy film or avant-garde offering, as putting pictures to these “songs” seems to be what they’re begging for. They’re mood pieces in a way, things that really affect your emotions and get under your skin—but, taken alone, they can be quite off-putting at first.

Regardless, fans of either artist might have a great deal of fun with this record trying to spot the influence of each individual and try to figure out who added what to each respective piece. For instance, “Pastoral” seems to have Cole’s fingerprints all over it with its 8-bit Nintendo-esque keyboard runs, while “Selbstportrait-Reich” has Roedelius vamping all sort of theremin-like sounds over the repetitive synth line. And on it can go from there. But when it comes right down to it, many of these songs are striking on their own, particularly as you get deeper and deeper into the record, and the sounds become softer and hypnotic. “Virginie L” has a melodramatic, sorrowful and mournful feel to it, while “Lullerby” is piece that you might be more apt to find in a treasured music box. There are delights elsewhere, however. “TangoLargo” starts out with a ice drip of a keyboard sound that seems as though it could have been pulled from Wang Chung’s soundtrack work for the 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A. “Still Live With Kannyu” is a haunting piano ballad with wavering synth trickery overlaid on top of it. Only “Wandelbar” really misses the mark, as it is nearly six minutes of garish noise and effects, and seems a bit out of place as much of the other material appears to be much more melody based.

If you can get past your preconceived notions of what a Lloyd Cole album is supposed to sound like, if not one by Hans-Jaochim Roedelius to a lesser extent, you’ll find that Selected Studies Vol. One is an interesting pairing of two seemingly dissimilar minds coming together and making what can be called performance art. Some may find it a touch on the pretentious side, and it does take a fair bit of warming up to and getting used to the fact that this is strictly ambient material in the rawest, most primordial sense. And, to a certain extent, it works best as background music. However, closer listens (not just in the figurative, but also the literal sense—use headphones if you must) reveals something that is utterly rewarding, original and different. Whether or not ambient electronica is something that might be just an abnormality in Cole’s back catalogue is still up for debate, there’s the promise and holdout that because this is just Vol. One, there’s more of this on the way, and it’ll be interesting to see what direction and shape this unlikely of collaborations will take. Selected Studies Vol. One is the type of album that doesn’t necessarily grab you upon first listen, but there’s much here to come back to and revisit. It just might get weird on you, babe, but what’s here is simply enjoyable enough if you take this on its own terms and realize that this isn’t going to be your average rock album—it aspires to something more, and that’s commendable for at least one artist who is better known for playing in a popular music genre. Selected Studies Vol. One shows that Cole is no mere dabbler, and it’ll be interesting to see how the fruits of this partnership further blossom.

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Publication: pop matters

Publication date: 06/03/13