Recording of August 2020: Live at Funkhaus Berlin

Alice Phoebe Lou: Live at Funkhaus Berlin
Alice Phoebe Lou, no catalog number. Auditioned as 24/44.1 FLAC stream, also available for download at Qobuz and streaming at 16/44.1 on Tidal. Vinyl can be purchased at 2020. Alice Phoebe Lou, prod.; Paul Scheffler, Noah Georgeson, Zino Mikorey, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

Nothing about Alice Phoebe Lou's musical career reflects industry norms. She maintains complete control over every aspect of her work, from creation to release. The result is always original and fascinating. Lou is at her best when she has an audience to connect with; this live performance is an ideal introduction to her powerful voice and courageous message.

Now 26, the South African singer, songwriter, and guitarist moved to Berlin when she was 17, earning a living by busking. She has never signed a traditional recording contract; after three EPs and four full-length albums, she still produces most of her own work, releasing it on her eponymous label. Hardly the average DIY musician, she has always maintained the highest technological standards, as reflected in the sound on this album.

Lou performs every year at Funkhaus Berlin, built in 1951 as a broadcast hall for orchestras—"Funk" is German for wireless radio. Audio was captured from direct mike and instrument feeds, resulting in detailed sound that minimizes audience noise. There's more depth and clarity than on most live albums, but there's also less sense of the hall and of the live-performance energy that many fans enjoy. Yet those who value the differences between studio and stage performance will be rewarded.

Jazz is a major influence on Lou's music, but it's not the only one. As a teen, she became interested in trance music, and the ethereal nature of that genre never leaves her sound. For the past few years, she has collaborated with Israeli composer and keyboardist Ziv Yamin, who defines his style as "psytrance." Yamin plays in Lou's band on this album, along with Dekel Adin on bass and Julian Berann on drums.

Yamin wrote one of the songs on Live at Funkhaus, the title track from the 2019 album Paper Castles, produced by Grammy-winner Noah Georgeson. On the studio-album version of "Paper Castles," Lou's voice is swallowed by the synth accompaniment. The balance on the live version favors the singer. And if her voice isn't as perfectly smooth here, the imperfections enhance emotional interest—she seems more engaged. The new funky guitar line is smart, adding a touch of humor.

Eight of the songs come from Paper Castles. Lou wrote most of them, their lyrics mainly reflecting her dissatisfaction with the world. "New Song," a soft-jazz number, shows off her rich lower register as she declares her determination not to fit in with society's expectations. "Skin Crawl" starts quietly and grows into pure rage with lines like "How about I take your patriarchy, your misogyny, and I put it in the back yard and set fire to it."

The live show also includes "She," which Lou wrote during her busking years and first released on her 2016 album, Orbit. Its stunning music video, directed by Natalia Bazina, has become a feminist indie classic. Lou told NPR in an interview that the repetition of the word "she" expresses the power of a woman trying to find her own inner strength and freedom. In this live version, Lou's gasps, shrieks, shakes, and growls, with Berann's nuanced support on percussion, evoke a thrilling escape from self-doubt.

Lou shows a different style in the album's only cover song. "Want Me" was composed in 2016 by singer Jacob Simon Allen for his project Puma Blue. Allen's version, which he classifies as "dream scape" and "jazz wave," is a peaceful, simple production with sustained electric guitar notes and a slow digital snare-drum beat. The live drumming by Berann is a huge factor in giving "Want Me" depth, but Lou's singing is the key. Her emotionally complex delivery turns an unremarkable number into a torch song Billie Holiday would have loved.

The album ends with "Galaxies" by Harry Charles Leatherby, a veteran of the Berlin busking scene. Spacy, dissonant chords fill out percussive timbres that sound like a rainforest. This performance, nearly two minutes longer than the studio release, gives Lou extra time to explore vocalizing techniques as Yamin and Adin improvise on flute, trombone, and other instruments.

Lou is serious about keeping control over her output, and not only in terms of what the music sounds like. Whenever it suits her, she makes her albums unavailable and deletes any hint of them from her website, as she did last year with two recordings from 2014. So download this one while you can.—Anne E. Johnson

Spla'nin's picture

I remember when Fremer used to list "In heavy rotation" consisting of what else was of interest in current listening. I miss the more & varied ideas for listening from the writers without having to be the death causing desert island Top of the Pops or Monthly Monster - suggestion box tip to Jim Austin - would add additional value to the content for some of us !

Jim Austin's picture

Suggestion noted.

Jim Austin, Editor

Aja2888's picture

This is the best new album I've heard in a long time. Thank you.

Casse-tout's picture

I've never heard of Alice Phoebe Lou before so thank you for the introduction. I am hooked on the album and I love listening to it. Maybe the live performance and energy has something to do with it, in 2020. But also, I love the attitude of the lyrics, the voice, the band, and the songwriting. I'm not usually this outgoing and this time I had to register to say thank you so much for this review.