'Tour De France Soundtracks'

I ain't been near the pop world proper for a couple of decades. When punk---once wild and fresh---lapsed to pure commercial crap it rebelled against, I switched to classical, and contemporary classical at that. I've been half-conscious of pop music fashions in the meantime. I heard Britpop imitate drivel. I heard dance; which must have interesting complexity underneath the dollar symbols. But that's it; I know no more.

I used to love Kraftwerk, I even sometimes listened to them in my pop-free decades. They didn't quite suffer from the usual pop failings of the rigid rhythm, clichéd lyrics, static instrumentation, static volume, static tempo, narrow pitch, simplistic harmonies; all the rigid pop very dull formula. The best bands find something despite this musical bland; I counted Kraftwerk as one of the few.

I was disappointed with their previous album, "The Mix". Ok, so the old tracks were harder, with fewer lost frequencies. But could they not generate something new? Given Britpop was about, perhaps it was fashionable to be utterly unoriginal. Or had they lost their way? Well, perhaps they had; it's a long time since that album came out, and I don't see that "Tour De France Soundtracks" follows musically from their masterpiece sequence starring "Man Machine" and "Computer World". I suspect that sequence came to a natural end with "Electric Café", and they've been searching for something else since then, and not been satisfied with what they produced until now.

You see, I swear there's a lot more of their early albums in "Tour de France Soundtracks". I'm hearing all kinds of influences, which I'm probably imagining. This album comes across to me as the product of a long journey. Perhaps the road was unproductive. Perhaps it went to places which made no commercial sense to market as Kraftwerk; might there be some other works out there under another bandname? I'm probably talking crap; I haven't a clue.

Despite that last paragraph, this is definitely Kraftwerk. Their lyrics remain as polylingual enhancement to rhythm. There's still synthesizer invention, their rich sound world. The tunes are subtle and nicely concealed, as tunes should be.

I find the strong tracks to be the title track (despite the wheelies), reminiscent of 1980s Kraftwerk, the mesmeric "Aéro Dynamik", the three satisfying "Tour De France Étape", and particularly the effect-ive "Chrono". But, as good as this album is, it's only good. It's even got a weak track, "Vitamin", of 'progressive' rock and drum machines with pretty effects, which gives me a similar reaction to a bonfire party with an I-must-be-hearty host, lots of sparklers and nothing else. It just doesn't gel.

The CD includes a booklet, with the obligatory lyrics, and some race video stills and diagrams. The diagrams, an ignoramus's guide to what's technically significant in the race, will be rather helpful if I ever catch the race on the telly and want some clue as to why who's doing what. The video stills are from the race, give atmosphere, are not the obvious shots, but are nothing dramatically inventive; they're the kind of thing anyone who knows how to hold a video camera and wants to make interesting shots of their subject would shoot.

When I first repeat listened to "Computer World", I found it often seemed to be following some particular musical route which had a standard ending, only for it to be resolved in quite a different manner; unexpected, effective and right. Perhaps this album does the same. But I've moved on.

Kraftwerk: Tour De France Soundtracks, KlinkKlang Produkt, EMI 591 708 2, 12 tracks

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