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Ada - Meine Zarten Pfoten

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Artist: Ada

Album: Meine Zarten Pfoten

Label: Pampa

Review date: Jul. 5, 2011

It’s been seven years since Blondie, Ada’s first album, and two since her catchall Adaptations mixtape, but Michaela Dippel’s melodic techno sounds totally fresh on Meine Zarten Pfoten. Granted, she’s not struggling for relevance: not all that much has happened in her scene since 2004, and Blondie showed she had the full-length game down pat. This album, whose title translates delightfully as "My Tender Paws," seems to deemphasize dance at first, but Ada fans hardly need to be reminded that her appeal is hybrid: she had the gumption to cover Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ "Maps" without pandering. Her new label, the DJ Koze–run Pampa, is a friendly slap in "serious" techno’s face and among releases by Isolée and Robag Wruhme, Ada’s latest stands out as the most immediate, playful, and durable.

Ada’s mixtape pun is a good one since, uniquely for a techno producer, part of her music’s appeal comes from a nagging familiarity that’s never retro. While the rest of technodom obsesses over the peculiarities of analog gear, Ada focuses on breathy melodies that tug on your mindsleeve. Those familiar shapes are the focus when you’re listening to, for instance, Ariel Pink, but is more of an undercurrent here, and Ada further masks it with a cover you don’t recognize as a cover. Instead of filling in the colors, she tends to paint over the original song, making a quirky selection like Little Joy’s “Keep Me in Mind” (spoiler alert: it’s the album’s secret track!) seem like an original. Ada’s relationship with covers is special — for her, it’s clearly a way to bring an unexpected emotional wallop to a style of music that prizes bigger-picture goals. It takes a few repeats to realize she didn’t write the song, but by the time you’ve googled the lyrics, she’s already shored up the gap between dance and pop. Choices like these make her music feel encompassing without abandoning the anal details that make for satisfying techno.

The only flat-out unlikable Ada song to date is the Blondie vocal showcase "Who Pays the Bill," where her pinched jazz affectations and awkward lyrics ruin a just-OK production. It sounds like Ada’s more sensitive to her tone these days. Her lyrics are no great shakes (from “Faith”: "If you’re blue, don’t let it worry you"), but she takes the hairpin melodic turns on "The Jazz Singer" with amazing poise. It’s inescapably catchy, almost too much of a confection — but the flute underlining her voice at key moments is an especially thoughtful and effective touch that pulls you back into the sugar high.

The back half of the album sports the obligatory deep-house cut, "At the Gate." Mediocre, long tracks can be like babysitting, a countdown more than the intended of-the-moment experience. But "At the Gate" is the album’s most mixable song without losing momentum, as identifiably Ada as everything else despite being instrumental. Albums often try to mix pop songs and deeper dance vibes, but Ada has the advantage of knowing how to transition between different styles without leaving behind what’s interesting about her in the first place. So when it comes to trying her hand at something potentially risky, like the post-dubstep pastiche "Happy Birthday," Ada’s able to bend James Blakeian sounds to her own will, giving a swirling rush of prettiness to standard-issue forlorn vocal samples. Meine Zarten Pfoten has its dull patches, too — the interminable “happy or sad” refrain she sings over “Likely” ’s bossa nova setting is braindead, and certainly doesn’t need to make a return as “Likely 2.” It would make great interstitial music for the next Harvest Moon game, though.

This album, like others that nudge closer to perfection without technically breaking new ground — I’m thinking of the Cass McCombs and Tape albums, to name ones I’ve written about this year — could be a springboard for thinking about why musicians who seem capable of almost anything stay in their comfort zones for albums at a time. I can imagine listeners being averse to Ada’s style, which is so easily understood and clearly designed to be aesthetically pleasing. But her basic formula is a richly rewarding one; producers who can balance the intellectual and emotional thrills of synthetic music are rare. I expect the heart on Pfoten’s sleeve means some listeners will find it insufficiently deep. That’s cool. I’m busy being obsessed with it.

By Brandon Bussolini

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