Phew: Our Likeness Album Review

In 1981, a young man sat quietly in Conny Plank’s legendary Cologne recording studio, watching Japanese singer Phew record her debut album. She had been brought from Osaka to Germany at just 20 years old thanks to her first single with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Her backing band included krautrock legends Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit de Can, some of the only musicians in the world the young iconoclast adored. The band decided to jam, and Phew wrote the lyrics on the spot. Miraculously, her voice, though small and unsteady at times, gradually found its place amid the din and din of Czukay and Liebezeit.

The spectator during those sessions was Chrislo Haas of the German new wave bands DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses. Although he didn’t show up at the time, he contacted Phew nearly a decade later in Tokyo to suggest they record together. Haas masterminded the sessions for Phew’s eclectic 1992 record, our likeness, inviting Liebezeit to re-record with a new generation of the German underground in Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubauten and Thomas Stern from Crime and the City Solution. Now in his early 30s, Phew reprized his role as Plank’s studio vocalist. This time she came prepared.

The years between Phew’s self-titled debut and our likeness, which is now being reissued by Mute, were turbulent but productive. Cologne’s early recordings were pivotal for her (she admitted that she probably wouldn’t have continued making music without meeting Plank), but they triggered a period of aimlessness. Encountering Plank’s immaculate studio and her meticulous recording techniques challenged her punk rock ethos. She spent five years reconciling what she observed in Germany with her own simple and positive approach. Meanwhile, the legend of her grew as the vocalist who recorded with Sakamoto and Can and then disappeared. She returned as a more confident artist with 1987 Viewa synth-driven poppy affair with relatively restrained melodic vocal lines.

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Although our likeness is Phew’s third album, it is the spiritual sequel to his debut. On both albums, Liebezeit’s percussion unlocked the potential of Phew’s voice through the language barrier. “Music is a language, and the music a person makes is dictated to some extent by his mother tongue,” he explained in a 2003 interview for The wire. “You can particularly hear it on the drums. Listen to a German drummer and you can detect the influence of the German language in his playing.” Frustrated by the limitations of singing in Japanese, Phew catapults her voice off the taut platform of Liebezeit’s hyper-precise percussion, twisting and stretching her words with the confidence that she will fall right back into the pocket.

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