‘Mind the Moon’ Review: Milky Chance Stick to Their Formula With Slight Variations
Milky Chance is an outfit as enigmatic as popular, making it a remarkable success story. Their moniker defies comprehension, sounding like a result of poor translation, which might actually be the case, considering that it was coined by two Germans who grew up listening to reggae. Ironically, the global perspective at the heart of this is the very key to their success. Their first single, 2013’s “Stolen Dance” defied easy classification, but has commonly been described quite accurately as folktronica. The readily palatable, genre-crossing sound, with an appeal that transcended provincial stylistic confines, drew international attention, and the song today remains one of the most Shazamed ever. That year, the duo released their debut “Sadnecessary,” and catapulted to stardom, with world tours, major television appearances, and all the works. Their 2017 followup “Blossom” brought more of the same, but further developed their craft, adding more layers and nuance to a singular sound. The latest album, “Mind the Moon,” continues where “Blossom” left off, and makes very little progress, but offers new slight variations of a sound that is hard not to enjoy, with a few sparks along the way.
From the first moments of opener “Fado,” the cosmopolitan quality so integral to Milky Chance’s sound is on full display. In this instance, there’s a Latin feel to the melody and rhythm, and it seems to Rehbein’s delivery as well, until better enunciated lines reveal he’s actually singing in English. The lyrics, however, are liberally open to interpretation, with such marvels as “doesn’t know maniac” and “give me that beautiness.” It’s like some sort of international Karaoke, and the words are abstract poetry although probably not by design. At any rate, they’re salvaged upon the chorus line, “What if the birds don’t know how to sing anymore?” whereupon jangly guitars pan out and the song takes on new proportions. The music’s wide range is not only geographical, but in this case also temporal, with a muffled vintage recording of the titular “Fado!” interspersed with the otherwise crystal clear audio. “Fado,” coming from the Latin “fatum” for “fate,” is a name for a type of popular Portuguese song, characterized by wistful lyrics and either guitar or mandolin instrumentation. Rehbein and Dausch make an homage to the form, in this case using guitar.
Milky Chance’s music sounds designed for DJ lounges of the ‘90s and early ‘00s retrofitted for the present. This is especially so on “Oh Mama,” with a type of sonic hodgepodge that recalls the likes of Fatboy Slim. There’s an aggressive pitch blend over the loose hip-hop backdrop that quite uncannily echoes the beat of the Roots 2002 track “Sacrifice.” It’s a spacious arrangement with clean, sleek guitar lines, and Rehbein gets becomingly lost in the groove. He has a singular voice, with a timbre similar to that of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, fit to an accent that makes it entirely different, and delivered in what a punk snarl might sound like if it were directed toward coffee house cool. On “The Game,” his intonations get especially alien, as he gets into more overtly reggae stylings. When he sings, “Wanna play / But I don’t know ’bout the rules of the game,” it sounds about right, as this duo could scarcely be less concerned with any rules.
Rehbein and Dausch pick their sonic details sparingly, selecting just the right bits, and the sound gets even further decluttered on “Rush.” There’s a Krautwork element to to the robotic soul of the vocals, and the mechanical repetition in the music. Rehbein switches from typical restrained chill mode to bellowing chorus duties in a dramatic demonstration. Otherwise, consummately lazy vocals guard the restrained jubilance of chanting chorus bits. There’s a quick cameo from Congolese-Belgian artist Témé Tan whose mellifluous, flowing vocal could hardly be more different, and adds plenty personality. “Long Run” takes the plucky, syncopated guitar featured in virtually every track, and adds busier, more fleshed-out bits. The song leans toward more standard singer-songwriter fare with more focus on engaging vocal melodies, but still with all the duo’s trademark tricks at play. “Daydreaming” centers around a mutating main melody and sparse instrumentation, with the feeling of a collage, as if singing along to snapshots of memories. Australian singer-songwriter and guitar hero Tash Sultana makes an appearance and adds volumes in just a few bars, with her light, jazzy manner surfeit of verve, and another ambiguous accent making a fitting match for her collaborators. In the last third, the relatively stagnant song has picked up steam, and the anticipation more than pays off, with the whole affair settling into an irresistible groove. Lyrics like “Might be the moon / Giving way throughout the night / When I’m daydreaming,” basically unthinking descriptions of feelings, suit the mood of the music.
“We Didn’t Make It to the Moon” is a deconstructed number with a minimal, skeletal beat and sluggish, emergent chords, the whole song sounding as if it has been slowed down, while still somehow still feeling organic. Infectious vocal harmonies are a highlight, and the overall sound comes across a bit like a more immediate version of cuts from Four Tet’s 2012 “Pink.” Here, Rehbein sings, “We didn’t make it to the moon / It doesn’t matter if it’s true,” continuing, “It’s always me and you… Don’t have to make it to the moon.” The open-ended complacence is consistent with the free, laidback sound of the music. “Eden’s House” shows a new level of minimalism, with just the usual threadbare guitar and singing, but stands out because of an appearance from South African choir Lady Black Mambazo, an artist idolized by Rehbein and Dausch idolized while growing up. The exotic, layered vocals anchor and amplify the more subtle world music elements in the music, and put this track in a category of its own.
The indie guitar sounds on “Scarlet Paintings,” interspersed with vocals kept too loud in the mix, sound like lo-fi recorded in hi-fi. The prickly guitar and easy vocals are ever present, but the format is getting quite stale. Fortunately “Right From Here” brings some
sorely needed variety. Delayed guitars knockout off-kilter, minimal reggae to a bass drum stomp, with ambient touches, hushed, muffled vocals, and a tickering beat run through phasers. Then it all erupts into a disco beat, and everything suddenly falls perfectly into place, capturing the duo at their best, tapping into something extraordinary. “Fallen” features some especially trippy guitar, the lines bending into one another, warping and blurring. There are squeaks and slides for texture, and a clapping rhythm reminiscent of the Jamaican “Diwali Riddim.” This is effective dance music for casually swaying on a small floor by a bar, in a dim lit club somewhere in a crowded city. Finally, “Window” tapers down the sound palette to filtered piano chords, and drum accents that build to a full beat of clipped, compressed sounds that bring the album to a close in a kaleidoscopic splatter.
In today’s oversaturated music scene, in which virtually every imaginable combination of genres has been exhausted, Milky Chance boast the considerable accomplishment of forging a sound all of their own. Such originality, however, comes with its own dangers. Specifically, it tempts artists to adhere rigidly to their tried and tested formula, in fear of alienating their prized fans. Milky Chance is a case in point. Rehbein and Dausch rehash the same sounds again and again and again, making an album like “Mind the Moon” a bit of a drag for all but the most enthusiastic devotees of their particular aesthetic. If you can get past the uniformity, however, there’s little not to like. The songs are full of mobilizing grooves, interesting textures, and altogether swinging, swaying feelgood music.
“Mind the Moon” is available Nov. 15 on Apple Music.