wichita lineman no. 1: justus köhncke, “wichita lineman” (1999)

This is probably as good a place to start this project as any. Justus Köhncke is a German house producer (from Köln, I think) who makes records for Kompakt. Here is what he looks like:

His records tend to be more vocal than not, and while not quite pop certainly edging in on it. He’s released a lot of cover versions – Barbara Morgenstern & Jürgen Paape on his first record for Kompakt, Carly Simon (in German) on his second, among others I’m sure I haven’t noticed. He’s a fine appropriator – “Shelter” takes a sample from the intro to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and runs with it as the basis of a galloping house track for six and a half minutes. It’s guaranteed to throw Stones fanatics into hysterics – though Cal Tjader’s vibraphone-tastic jazz rendition of the same (released on Descarga, 1971) doesn’t have the same effect.

The discogs page for Köhncke lists a record he did in 1999 before joining the Kompakt stable, Spiralen der Erinnerung (“spirals of memory”, says Google translations). It’s on iCi records, some German label that only put out two other releases (one of the two being a single of two of the tracks) – not the sort of thing that’s easy to track down outside of Germany, probably not that easy to track down inside of Germany. But the tracklisting! oh, the tracklisting! It’s all covers, mostly of old folk/rock songs – John Cale’s lovely “I Keep a Close Watch”, Neil Young’s “Old Man”, Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”, another Carly Simon song. And, of course, “Wichita Lineman”.

Against all hope (if somewhat predictably) a filesharing program turned up a copy of this. I might as well admit right now that filesharing makes this project possible – I certainly wouldn’t go out and buy twenty CDs just because they had a copy of “Wichita Lineman” on them. I would probably buy a copy of this one, were it available on CD (it’s not) because it’s lovely. On seven of the eight songs, Köhncke is singing in English (the last track is by Hildegard Knef, a German singer I know nothing about). I like singers who don’t have English as a first language: they tend to stress words in ways that makes them them new through defamiliarization. “I can hear you through the whine” he says, but there’s a “d” sound at the end of the last word: “wind”? Can he hear us through the whine, or the (mispronounced) wind? I don’t know what the actual word in the song is. Either would make sense, probably.

The instrumentation on this is mostly an organ, very up front at certain points. The vocals are spoken, almost whispered, sometimes double-tracked. There’s faint wood-block percussion in the background, at about the same level as Justus’s voice. A guitar comes in about two-thirds of the way through – it sounds fake and somewhat perfunctory. And then something curious happens 33 seconds from the end, after the vocals are done: the organ leaves, and there’s a full band playing, with wood blocks, still distant, for good measure. It sounds like it might be a treated version (static added? or is this just my MP3?) of the Glen Campbell version, though I can’t quite tell.

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