The debut album from German folk-pop duo Milky Chance took over a year to make it from their home country to American shores, but really, it’s pretty tremendous it made it here at all. The list of Central European coffee-house acts to break it big in the U.S. is not a long one, and when you add the fact that Chance are not a pair of folkies in the conventional, co-piloting vocals sense of Simon & Garfunkel, but more in the He’s the DJ, I’m the Singer sense of Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis, it becomes even more improbable. But here they are, and we should be grateful for that, because they’re bringing with them Sadnecessary, the best autumn soundtrack this side of Manitoba.
Milky Chance’s unusal brand of mid-tempo acoustic rock has been purposefully imported over the Atlantic thanks to the surprise success of their debut single, “Stolen Dance,” one of the least-likely U.S. hits of the decade. The group’s serenely rollicking crossover jam is currently enjoying a multi-week run on top of Billboard’s Rock Airplay chart, and is gradually climbing up the Hot 100 as well. Unlike many fluke successes of its ilk, “Dance” is no red herring — the great majority of Sadnecessary follows in its pattern of low-octane beats and gently lapping guitar strumming, making for a lovely and understated album that feels ideal to warm up to as the weather gets progressively more compromised outside your window.
The appeal of Milky Chance has a lot to do with moderation. When you think of folk in 2014, you tend to think of it in polarized extremes: the rushing banjos, furious drums, and stadium-ready choruses of Mumford & Sons, or the balladic, cabin-in-the-woods minimalism of Bon Iver. Chance opts for neither, instead finding themselves contented at a casual stroll. The most energetic tracks — opener “Stunner” and second single “Down By the River” — never accelerate past a trot, and the draggiest tracks — the rhythm-section-less closer “Loveland,” and the love song “Fairytale” — never slow to more than a saunter. Dynamics are kept similarly in check, with few moments on the album raising to a scream or lowering to a whisper, instead keeping an even keel.
Such description of the Sadnecessary‘s creamy middling may make it sound boring or at the very least unremarkable, but in truth, it’s one of the more inscrutable albums you’ll listen to this year. The record achieves a tone and rhythm uniquely its own, probably as the oddball result of playing an organic music style with an electronic infrastructure. Rhythm sections roll along with an analog warmth but a digital precision, guitars echo with the intimacy of an open-mic night and the sheen of a million-dollar recording studio. Gorgeous tones pop up throughout; the plunking acoustic of “Flashed Junk Mind,” the earth-shaking bass of “Running,” the rattling background hum of the title track. It’s the aural equivalent of a strong cup of hard cider: warm, soothing, and slightly intoxicating.
Paying so much attention to the album’s production may distract from the lyrics, and truth be told, Milky Chance are probably very OK with that. As you might expect from a band with such a clunky and confusing name — it’s totally meaningless, in case you were wondering — wordplay is not the German’s duo strong suit. In interviews, the pair speak with considerable accents, and their control over the English language would probably not be described as “Dylanesque.” Consequently, many of the songs feature couplets that could be generously described as non sequitorial (From “Becoming”: “Only jealousy is blind / But there’s a light that brings me back”) and could often be best described as downright nonsensical (From “Sweet Sun”: “You push me to the inglorious shadows of a craving / And if we fall we blow up like exponential assembly”).
It’s not really a problem, though. Singer Clemens Rehbein croons with a throatiness that renders many of his lyrics borderline incomprehensible anyway, and he has a tendency to run his syllables over into one another, almost like slurred drunk-talk, further lessening the ability to discern concrete phrases or thoughts in his words. In the end, Rehbein’s voice is just another musical layer for Milky Chance, another alluring tone, and it’s most affecting when forgoing vocabulary altogether — like the Fleet Foxes-style harmonies that pop up in the “ooh”s of the title track, or the Brian Wilson-like falsetto that begins “Becoming.”
“Stolen Dance” is indeed on here, by the way, though befitting of its unexpected-hit nature, it’s buried in the back as the pentultimate track. It’s worth the wait, though; a transfixing hip-swayer (think Jermaine in the Flight of the Conchords credits) that slithers its way through a surprisingly seductive verse to the group’s most anthemic chorus, as Rehbein elevates an octave and belts it out with uncharacteristic urgency: “I want you / We can boogie on the floor.” The key to the song, though — and maybe to the group as a whole — is how the moment the chorus has finished its chest-beating (chest-tapping, anyway), it shuffles right back to its trademark jaunt, like it felt uncomfortable being away as long as it was. You’re a little relieved to be back yourself, actually.
Like few music videos in recent memory, the clip for “Stolen Dance” nails the visual for its artist in a way that feels definitive and not overly self-conscious. Filmed with Rehbein playing in front of a blank wall and looking wistfully off camera, the video projects various images of unspecific memories of people and places on top of singer and backdrop, seemingly envisioning his subconscious. The images change, but the tone and the action doesn’t, as Rehbein stays still and virtually expressionless for the whole video, the background displaying far more emotion than he does. It’s still without being static, evocative while not provocative, silly but never stupid. And that sweater Rehbein is wearing looks really, really comfortable.