To say that there has been a long wait for The German Alphabet, the first studio album from Liverpool singer-songwriter Thomas Lang in 20 years, is an understatement. Even Kate Bush has released 3 albums during that period, and Kate Bush albums are rarer than hen’s teeth (insert your own cliche here).
Now that’s out of the way, is The German Alphabet any good? Oh yes its good, you will be pleased to hear.
If you are a fan of Scallywag Jaz, Little Moscow and The Lost Letter Z, you will not be disappointed. *That voice* is still in fine form, but if you are expecting a re-run of the first 3 studio albums, The German Alphabet does not retread old ground. Its exactly the sort of album you would expect to hear from Thomas Lang in 2016, and is not a nostalgia-fest.
The aspect of the album that jumps out straight away is the theme – musically the album is a nod to John Barry, Ennio Morricone and ambitious film soundtracks. In fact, the songs themselves are like short films, with a strong narrative running throughout the lyrics.
Kicking off with the albums title track, flutes and a high in the mix bass-line sit amongst dark electronics. An almost spaghetti western guitar line features on this (and several tracks) and The German Alphabet is topped off with a high-energy vocal performance from Thomas. The arrangement is wonderful on this song – strings and horns dip in and out of the mix, without over-staying their welcome.
After an up-tempo start, Rain slows things down. The arrangement sounds like Portishead meets Massive Attack. Rain is one of the trilogy of very electronic tracks on the album, and contains one of the finest vocal performances from Thomas. I love the breakdown towards the end of this song, with some Robert Fripp-like electronics and sweeping strings. I think this will be one of the most popular songs on the album amongst fans.
Shaken not stirred
Pale Imitation is surely a contender as a future Bond theme. This is a classic Lang tune – with some lovely (almost progressive) organ and smooth percussion under-pinning an emotional vocal performance.
“I’ve got a plan but you won’t get behind it”
Pale Imitation reveals itself to you over repeated plays – with little details rising in and out of the arrangement.
Film Stars you may already know, as it first appeared on the 1990 (cassette only) Refugees From Little Moscow EP. I’ve always hoped this song would get a wider audience, as it contains one of Thomas’ best vocals.
Just piano and voice, its a delight and Thomas channels his inner Rickie Lee Jones on this track. And I could be wrong, but towards the end, it sounds like Mr Lang lights up a smoke to see him through to the end of the song. Now that’s jazz!
Pulse is the first track I heard from the album, around a year ago. It has evolved from the early take, but remains by far the most electronic track on the album. The rhythm is in the pulsing synths, as there is no acoustic percussion, and it has a late 80s / early 90s feel.
The strings (and vocals) on the chorus are simply heart-wrenching. It remains one of my favourite tracks on the album.
“I touch your face, so cruel”
I think Klee records flew Martin Scorsese in to help Thomas write the lyrics for Be Missing, as its a pure 1970’s Las Vegas / Gangster flick-in-a-song.
Be Missing is also the first appearance of a (Scallywag) Jaz(z) arrangement on the album, mixed with some early 90s Portishead thrown in for good measure.
Lyrically, Be Missing is probably Thomas’ finest hour, and I love the crazy toms / mournful vocals on the tracks outro. Its all very high drama, and is definitely Goodfellas in song form.
“They dug a hole in the sand that’s true – and maybe its your size”
Colorado Boulevard is a gem of a tune, and is a beautiful late night torch ballad. Dim the lights, sip on some expensive whiskey (on the rocks of course) and wallow in this song.
Smokey, slow strings and trumpet power this expensive sounding, as powerful as Sinatra, jazz diamond. Over time, I think this song will sneak into my heart as one of my top 10 favourite Lang tracks.
Swing me baby one more time
I Go Wild (BBV) is the big-band version (a more acoustic, stripped back take is available on the LP version of the album). Its dripping with Vegas panache – the song is driven by a joyous ensemble that makes you run upstairs and slip on your tuxedo every time you play it (or maybe that’s just me).
Michael Bublé would pay a million bucks to swing this hard, ain’t that a fact.
Lucky Me dials down the tempo, and is the album’s sweetest ballad. Another top-notch vocal (and lyrical) performance, I’m sure this song will be a favourite on the forthcoming live dates.
“No moonlight and roses, we’ve been here forever”
Lucky Me name-checks some of the musical (and political) heavyweights, and Tom’s vocals ooze class.
Talking of heavyweights – Kiss The Canvas is a love-song to the pugilist arts, and is well-timed, coming in the year we lost “The greatest”, Muhammad Ali.
I remember going to a London Lang gig in the early 90s and the band were all crowded round the TV post-gig watching a Benn / Eubank fight (if my memory serves me well), and Tom’s love of boxing is clear on Kiss The Canvas.
Kiss The Canvas tells the story of the darker side of the sport, more pay to lose than pay-to-view.
The album doesn’t run out of steam, ending on two very strong songs. Sugar Don’t Work has a feel of early Goldfrapp, and is another of those songs that comes into its own after dark.
If David Lynch is looking for a lead song for the forthcoming Twin Peaks series, he should take a listen to the dark beauty of Sugar Don’t Work.
The darkest song on The German Alphabet, Watchman closes the album. The last of the electronic trilogy of tracks, there is a feeling of cold-war paranoia in the lyrics and a little of the spirit of Billy Mackenzie and The Associates in the music of Watchman.
Lost till I found you
An honorary mention must go to Lost Till I Found You, from the vinyl version of the album. One of the final songs from the DA Hughes / John Murphy / Lang partnership, its worth buying the vinyl album for this one song alone. Like the theme tune from a great, lost 80s movie, its no leftover.
Lost Till I Found You captures some of the best parts of the late 80s / early 90s – the emotive synths and the subtle drums, and would be a highlight of any of Lang’s albums.
It looks as if this song can be bought in digital format from Amazon from 30th September.
“Winds blow through, rains came down – lost till I found you, lost till I found you”
I hope all fans of Thomas Lang’s music get to hear The German Alphabet, as its a vital part of the Lang catalogue of work. The album has clearly been put together by Thomas and the musicians who play on the album with so much love and attention. I hope we don’t have to wait 20 years to hear the next album.
Buy The German Alphabet
The German Alphabet / Rain / Pale Imitation / Film Stars / Pulse / Be Missing / Colorado Boulevard / I Go Wild (BBV) / Lucky Me / Kiss The Canvas / Sugar Don’t Work / Watchman
The German Alphabet / Rain / Pale Imitation / Lost Till I Found You / Pulse / Be Missing / Lucky Me (alt version) / I Go Wild (alt version) / Sugar Don’t Work / Watchman
Find out more about Thomas Lang
Visit the Klee Music website