I’ll get this out of the way now. This record is about Rotterdam. Even if it was recorded in Amsterdam. That fact is an irrelevance, an aside. No, I’ll say it again: this record is about Rotterdam. To begin with, the cover screams the nature of the Port City. Practical, dour, constructed to work. What's more, Lewsberg’s debut record starts with a recording of two great existentialist C20th Rotterdam poets and wreckheads, C.B. Vaandrager and Frans Vogel, chewing the cud in an old documentary where Vogel interviews his friend, one-time mentor, and rival for the crown of biggest literary noise in Rotterdam. Inevitably the spirit of another Rotterdammer hangs over the band, the inspiration for their name, Robert Loesberg; a complicated character and writer of the brilliant and “difficult” novel Enige defecten (Some Defects).
Making the connection between poet and wreckhead in Rotterdam is important, vital in fact. The collective spirit of the three writers is summoned up on this record to emphasise the complicated nature of living in this grey, proud, emotionally diffident working city. Despite being a world port Rotterdam in many ways looks inwards, defines itself by a set of rules and attitudes that mean nothing to an outsider. This is crucial to remember. And despite its genuine warmth and soul, it’s a tough place. For all the recent coffee shop fopperies and shiny artistic start-ups, this not a city to make a dick of yourself in. Unless you’re a poet. Rotterdam’s poetic, jenever-soaked, weed-toked underbelly, its true locus geni, is sometimes glimpsed in cafes on the Oude Binnenweg, or fleetingly in districts such as Delfshaven or Noord. Slipping round the corner before you can catch up with it. At once expressive and expressing no emotion. Communicating by way of strange emotional codes and social mores. “What’s Vague Must Stay Vague”. And that’s what this record documents.
‘Terrible’, with its rumble and thud is a key track in that it sets the scene. Here, duplicity is put on a plate and served up to the listener like a plate of bitterballen (a popular but very very “normal” fried Dutch snack) in the pub. You see, with ‘Terrible’, Lewsberg singer Arie Van Vliet wants to tell you that he has no time for moral judgements. Doing that is too difficult. There's room for everyone, as long as they don’t pester anyone else. It’s so open-minded an approach it’s worrying for a buitenlander. Where do you turn for comfort, for warmth? It’s the classic Dutch, down-to-earth way of weighing the world. It reminds me of the running joke expats tell each other about a visit to the doctors here. It goes like this. (Patient) “Doctor I have a terrible (here, you can insert any number of maladies). (Doctor) “You feel sick? Have an aspirin.” Lewsberg don’t want to rock the boat, even if guitarist Michiel Klein gets uppity now and again with his squeaks and blurts. ‘Non-Fiction Writer’ continues the same course, charting an asexual encounter that turns out to be weirdly pervy. Van & Vogel turn up again to add the right dose of melancholy (another Roffa thing) at the track’s end. This big city melancholy can feel terribly creepy, too. When Van Vliet and bassist Shalita Dietrich intone the lyrics on the lament ‘Carried Away’ a dread feeling of remove hits this reviewer. Take the couplet, “All your friends were there / And where were you?” The pair follow up this rebuke with a confession, “I don’t know what to say / I got carried away”. What on earth are they singing about? A wake? Someone missing the last Sparta Rotterdam home match? Such a deadpan but stark one-two about something we can only guess at invokes the same feeling of cold, damp, existentialist dread and mystery as Throbbing Gristle’s eerier, quieter moments.
Another thing to note is the machine-like nature of the band. After a few listens you realise that Lewsberg press songs out like a cannery on the Maasvlakte. Like Warhol’s drawings of Campbell’s soup tins, they’ve made a standard template containing different flavours, all under the reassuring Lewsberg brand. Take ‘The Smile’; a classic mid-tempo Lewsberg rocker that chugs along courtesy of that thud, that bass rumble, that mind-shaking guitar-spaghetti from meneer Klein and those ambiguous, sanguine lyrics, chewing away at your ideas of how we “should” or “shouldn’t” communicate with each other. It gets to you, this poetic emptiness. It gets to you, this deliberate standardisation. Making art consumable, standard, pop for the masses, like Gard Sivik did in the early 60s. Look what happened to them.
So there we have it. Standard rock tunes for young and old alike, given a dose of moral equivocation, and brought to you in the nicest possible manner. Albeit documenting Rotterdam at its most poetic and nihilist. Is there anything that speaks to the outside world here? Well, before you scroll through this review some more and think, “gah, art rock for show offs in a particular city”, I have to say that this is a very moreish record. It’s a great college rock record on one level. College rock in the manner of Modern Lovers, Smog, Silver Jews or Malkmus. The sound recordings of the two Rotterdam poets lend a fairytale quality that transcends setting. And the last track ‘Vicar’s Cross Pat 2’ somehow (courtesy of Shalita Dietrich’s soft, wavering vocals) achieves some form of emotional salve. Odd little codas and sound snippets also leaven out matters, which may hark to guitarist Michiel Klein’s interest in sound art and strange noises in general. His guitar solos take equally from Stirling Moss’s growly ragas and Simply Saucer’s crashing electric runs. So it’s a good listen we should definitely remember that.
And it’s a dirty record. Sexy. Pervy. Full of smut. There are moments on Lewsberg where we could be listening to a C21st take on the Velvet Underground’s ‘The Gift’. Take a track like ‘Chances’, which effectively says, if you want to shag around the house, get on with it. ‘Chances’ is a brilliant pop track, the sort of thing David Byrne would have written back when he was trying to make contact with alien lifeforms. It conjures up the sort of domestic surreality that touches us all. Once, a friend wrote a letter to me where he conceived the strangest thing that he thought that could ever happen to him was (and I quote, verbatim, after 27 years) “sex at knifepoint in the backseat of a Hillman Avenger”. This sentence, with its dual impulses of violence and camp sordidity, still makes me laugh. And now, a generation on, a bunch of Rotterdam existentialists have unbeknownst to themselves, conjured up my friend’s vintage British car sex smut with their talk of “doing it” in a Rover 25. Weird.
It’s good to conclude this review by talking about the “enemy” up the road by way of a very telling comparison. Lewsberg’s LP can be weighed against the latest from Amsterdam’s Naive Set who recently have made their third LP, a very fine record of intelligent, accessible guitar-based college rock. Arie Van Vliet plays in Naive Set, too, so there is a further reason to contrast. Naive Set’s LP, with its internationalism and multinationalism, its chirpy soul, its hazy good times vibe and well-heeled hints at spirituality, is Amsterdam writ large. And nothing of Naive Set’s worldview transfers to Lewsberg, absolutely nothing. The two could come from different worlds. Different worlds… A final coda to all of this postulating. It’s instructive to note that the record ends (Vicar’s Cross Pt 2) as it begins (Vaan) with a circular riff that evokes a nursery rhyme. These notes evoke no time and somehow seal the listening experience off, making everything part of the whole. The feeling of the blank canvas. Year zero. A sort of personal existentialism, hermetically sealed, seemingly obvious, but only open to initiates or students of the subject. It’s very, very Lewsberg. And very, very Rotterdam.
Words: Richard Foster