Last Tangowerk In Berlin – Looking Back At A Curious Musical Experiment

A Weimar-inspired, multi-artist concept album based around the tango and created by producer NHOAH.

There’s no faulting the ambition of Tangowerk. A multi-artist production released in 2011, recorded over several years and two continents, and packaged in a chunky box containing the album, a DVD and a 64-page book, this is clearly no throwaway project.

The DVD (more than the book) provides a good introduction to the project – I’m not saying watching the 38-minute Making of Tangowerk first necessarily helps, but it certainly puts things into a degree of context – partly through background information, partly through the approach of the film, which is as much art as documentary. It veers between inspiration and pretension – as, indeed, does the album – but it’s a fascinating watch, showing how the project eschewed digital techniques in order to create something more organic, complete with interviews with all the major players (singer Headvoice, who is ‘lively’, quickly becomes very hard work). The mix of tango and 80s electro-pop is a curious (and not always successful) one, but it’s easy to see how a German producer, immersed in the world of Berlin’s gay and transvestite scene and with one eye on the decadent appeal of pre-war German Weimar cabaret, would see the dramatic and theatrical potential in a project based around something as sexual and melodramatic as the tango.

Also on the DVD are music videos for five of the tracks. It’s a shame that some of the other performance footage we see in the documentary couldn’t be included in its entirety as well. Still, the disc sets us up nicely for the album proper.

German uber-producer NHOAH (known for work with Marianne Faithfull, Bronski Beat and…erm… David Hasselhoff) apparently laboured over Tangowerk for something like five years, and that is possibly where the problem lies. It’s hard to imagine any album, much less something as ambitious and conceptual as this, really sounding like a coherent whole when it was created over such a long time period. That’s not to say that this isn’t a very impressive project – but it does sound more like several parts combined, rather than a cohesive whole.

Things start well with One More Kiss, with Louie Austen’s impassioned vocals and a real sense of drama – just the sort of thing that classic tango needs. It shares the melodrama and sense of the theatrical that both the tango and the cabaret need, and is an excellent opener. Things unfortunately then fall apart with the next track, If You Go, a woefully dated electro-dance track, with Headvoice – no less irritating here than he was on the documentary – howling away over a sub-Pet Shop Boys track that goes nowhere. Headvoice is back a couple of tracks later for Dancing in the Volcano, mixing clumsy lyrics (“my life must be more than this/my life is a fucking kiss”) with a track of two halves – the first part is more retro-electro bombast, the second part more torch song. No prizes for guessing which works best.

Tuyo Soy, featuring Walter ‘Chino’ Laborde, returns to the more traditional tango feel and is the first of several tracks to follow the same musical refrain (this is a concept piece, after all). Loborde’s vocals are suitably impassioned, and despite the steady drumbeat backing, this has an authentic tango feel.

Nothing quite says ‘old fart desperate to be down with the kids’ quite as well as crowbarring a rapper into a track where they neither fit nor belong, so, unfortunately, we get Argentinian El Topo (!) jabbering over Tanto, to no great effect – a pity, as the song itself is one of the album’s more effective combinations of electronics and tradition. El Topo returns later for Amanece En El Oeste, which is entirely disposable.

Innocent – with its breathy, almost classically Euro-poppy vocals by Lulu Schmidt – is an album highlight. It has no tango connection, but as a seductive pop song, it’s rather arresting. On the other hand, Ob Ich Dir Treu Sein Kann, featuring the Berlin Comedian Harmonists, feels like a genuine period piece, the harmony vocals backed with simple piano and drums. Lost in Weltschmerz is probably the album’s most effective attempt to recreate Eighties style electro-pop, thanks to a vigorous performance from Mieze Katz on the vocals. It suffers from some dubious English translations (and the accompanying video’s visual effects would’ve been laughed out of the room back in 1984), but it’s a pretty bouncy, catchy little number.

Hijo de Puto returns to classic tango style – albeit with a slightly more modern beat – with Argentinian singer Adriana Varela providing the vocals. Si Te Puedo Ser Fiel, with Karina Beorlegui, continues the traditional theme, perhaps less stridently, but arguably more passionately. Staying with a traditional sound – at least initially – 1-2-3, with Ina Viola Blasius, opens up seductively and then slams into a faster pace. But Blasius’ vocals, a mix of whispered and belted out, together with an off-kilter string section and some unexpected guitar riffing give the track a deranged, psychotic sense of erotic dementia that is pretty impressive. Here, you can feel the whole Tangowerk concept being encapsulated and working. Even a sudden lurch into electro can’t derail this particular track, the longest on the album at 7.45, and definitely a highlight. After this, instrumental The Waltz feels like a bit of a filler. It’s a perfectly inoffensive piece, but there’s nothing exceptional going on here. On to album closer Aua, with Ina Viola Blasius and Headvoice communicating in cries of ‘aua’ (ouch) that are pained and passionate – the relationship between agony and ecstasy toyed with. Blasius sounds seductive; Headvoice annoyingly over-dramatic. So it goes. As album closers go, it’s effective enough.

Tangowerk is too scattershot in its content to be a complete triumph. But one has to admire NHOAH for having the balls to make something so off-kilter and ambitious, and the best bits of this album are very good indeed. I imagine where this project would really shine is in live performance, the tonal shifts being more suited to a theatrical piece than a cold listen on a Saturday morning. In any case, would-be (or established) burlesque performers looking for new tracks to perform to, club promoters looking for something more authentically decadent to impress the punters with and fans of vintage decadence are advised to pick this up.



Help support The Reprobate: