There is a band that fits the specific mythology of “everyone who heard them started a band” arguably more than the Velvet Underground ever did, and that is Can.
Can’s approach to electronic-inflected freeform rock experimentation proved itself wildly groundbreaking even among Can’s “Krautrock” contemporaries–all of whom seemed collectively inclined throughout the late 1960s and 1970s to remove any and all artistic boundaries surrounding the art of rock and rock-adjacent composition.
With Can’s approach to rock music being generally long-form and without any set structure, and with their less rock-oriented electronic sonic collages being almost entirely removed from popular music convention, the idea that such a band even bothered releasing “singles” is almost comical.
Yet, Can not only released singles, their discography produced over three LPs worth of them, which have now been compiled for the first time by longtime Can-affiliated record label Spoon, into a single, pristinely remastered collection geared toward both newcomers to the band and longtime fans alike.
“The Singles” culls together cuts from across the Can discography, including vintage tracks that were not released until the 2010’s as part of “The Lost Tapes” series. The assortment is eclectic (perhaps out of necessity) and far-reaching from the more obscure corners of Can’s recorded material.
The collection opens with “Soul Desert,” one of Can’s tracks originally recorded as soundtrack material for the German dramatic thriller “Mädchen mit Gewalt” (“The Brutes”). It is one of the band’s more straightforward tracks, fitting firmly within established psychedelic garage rock convention a la The Seeds and The 13th Floor Elevators. It’s a solid 4/4 psych-romp through heavy bass and tuneful riffing.
While the song may not be truly representative of Can’s overall stylistic leanings, Spoon’s decision to place it at the front of “The Singles” suggest that the label is keeping potential new fans in mind by not immediately throwing the listener headfirst into Can’s more unrelentingly bizarre territory.
Track two continues this trend of “newcomer friendly” Can with another comparatively “normal” song from Can’s soundtrack work, with “She Brings The Rain” from the German-Italian film “Ein großer graublauer Vogel” (“A Big Grey-Blue Bird”). While this track is again one of Can’s more accessible compositions, it is significant given the presence of a heavy jazz influence, introducing any new listener to a significant aspect of Can’s approach to composition (and indeed an important element to Krautrock in general). Jazz is integral to Can and to many of Can’s contemporaries.
Track three is “Spoon,” one of the more recognized Can tracks, and definitely one of their songs that best lends itself to the single format.
“Spoon” is short enough and catchy enough that it’s easy to ignore just how weird it really is. Anybody can make the simple appear complex; with “Spoon,” Can illustrate their mastery of making the complex seem beautifully simple.
“Spoon” winds jam band-style guitar noodlings across one of the downright trippiest examples of Can’s signature electronic experimentation. Vintage synthesizers produce otherworldly noises and tones (especially for the early 70s) that exist at the intersection of energetic dance-party and sci-fi dystopia. There’s very little else like it in Can’s discography, and certainly nothing that manages to wrap all of its maddened wonder up in a tight little package of barely 3 minutes.
“Future Days,” the eponymous track for one of Can’s most well-regarded albums, is yet another example of Can reaching their peak as artists when they are given room to expand their sound into extensive musical suites upwards of 10 minutes, and while this track doesn’t even reach that time marker, it again had to be shrunk to fit on a 7”. “Future Days” is a powerhouse of a song that deserves better.
“The Singles,” collected largely in chronological order, remind us that Can, starting in the mid-late 70s, begin to hit an era of decline that most fans have collectively decided to ignore.
The one saving grace during the final stretch of the album is of all things a Christmas song. There’s very little to Can’s interpretation of “Silent Night”– it’s effectively just a distinctly “krautrock” take on a Christmas classic, but the composition is unique and engaging, and the sheer absurdity of the affair injects some much-needed humor into both Can’s late-career work and the entirety of Christmas Music as a concept.
Overall, “The Singles” is a mixed bag. Can is here in their totality, their finest art right alongside their gravest failings, and everything in between. The studio remastering is excellent but the required track-length shortening is tragic. “The Singles” is riddled with these dichotomies, making it just as difficult to recommend as to dissuade against.
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