It is a pleasure that through my career thus far as a musician I have built an audience in Germany and Austria through my involvement with their ukulele scene in clubs and festivals. Recently at Ukulele Festival Obermörmoosen I saw two friends of mine engage in a fascinating project.
The tandem of Elisabeth Pfeiffer-a classicly trained fingerstyle guitarist, and Charlotte Pelgen of the Bad Mouse Orchestra have combined to recreate German Chansons (lyric-driven songs, akin to poetry with musical arrangement) on ukulele. Their debut CD as a collective showcases 12 songs in German, including the likes of Rainer Bielfeldt, Jacques Brel, Berthold Brecht and more.
Beginning with “Auf Dem Platz”, the bell-like tones of harmonics create a haunting atmosphere to make way for Charlotte’s whispering melodies. The song dances between spaciously sad verses with tidal motion to the swaying compound time choruses that build in intensity before a tragic coda.
The duo exercises lighter tones with the comparatively bouncy “Dreh Das Fernsehen Ab[turn off the TV]” complete with a theatre vibe and jazzy fills that borrow from Kreisler’s original version on piano.
A standout track for me is “Blumengiessen [watering flowers]”. A departure from the jazz and swing I am used to hearing from Charlotte, Pelgen instead follows a Broadway route with a bombastic theatrical delivery, while the rapid fingerpicking from Elisabeth carries a joviality that drives the song forward. A song about watering plants to escape the tragedy in the world, both parties convey the calm and the tension in the perfect places, before reaching the pompous climax of “Und mein Garten blüht, Und mein Garten ist schön! [and my garden blooms, and my garden is beautiful]”.
The whole album is supported with just 1 ukulele and 1 vocal, as a deliberate choice to create a naked arrangement and truly draw an emphasis to the stories being told (akin to my logic when recording my album Songs From a Shit Summer) and Winston Jud does a fantastic job of filling the sonic space while maintaining the fragility of the performance. The capture of Pelgen’s dynamic voice is both ambient without feeling empty, and the mellow ukulele feels broad while the vocals are pulled forward right to your ear.
My favourite track has to be the closing “Schau Sie Schläft [look she’s sleeping]”. A story about a man watching their comatose old love sleeping in peace, the waveringly delicate vocals are carried by a beautifully harmonic chord progression. Melodically the song takes you on a lullaby’s journey, and even the non-verbal melodic section is the type of tranquil transcendence that brings you to tears. It is the perfect way to put the album to bed.
As an experience, the album “Schau Sie Schläft” is an ambitious project. Re-imagining these vintage numbers through the medium of ukulele, Charlotte & Elisabeth create a celebration of a genre oft-forgotten. While not all the songs quite land, the exploration of moods from jovial to tragic is felt when absorbing this slice of German culture. 8/10
You can buy a CD here