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Max Raabe's 'elegant experiment'

The German singer and bandleader and his Palast Orchester go 21st century retro with their new album, 'One Cannot Kiss Alone.'

February 22, 2012|By Christopher Smith, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "How would a composer from the past work in this time?" is the task Max Raabe says he set for himself.
"How would a composer from the past work in this time?" is the… (Olaf Heine )

Max Raabe is up to something new, which is news itself.

The ever-elegant German singer and bandleader has forged a two-decade career resurrecting and performing lost or forgotten Weimar Republic-era compositions from the 1920s and '30s. However, Raabe and his Palast Orchester arrive for local concerts Wednesday and Thursday with a new album called "One Cannot Kiss Alone" that consists of songs written in the current century and largely by Raabe himself.

In planning and making the record, Raabe was focused on a question that emerged during his musicology efforts.

"How would a composer from the past work in this time?" said Raabe, 49, during a recent interview from Germany. "We were concerned about themes that would feel right from that distant period, but also music that would be in a pop style from now. So it's an elegant experiment for us and we are very happy with it."

So, apparently, is the German record-buying populace. The album was recently certified platinum — meaning 200,000 German copies sold — and has given Raabe a younger following at performances in Europe.

The album's tone is sort of "cheerful melancholy" (as the English-language liner notes aptly put it) meets pleasing pop, with Raabe and his collaborator, German songwriter and producer Annette Humpe, having produced a dozen songs, largely about love, that somehow straddle then and now. There are 12 songs in German, with English-language versions of five of them.

Mind you, all this doesn't imply Raabe is not, well, the same, ol' refined-but-recherchez Max.

For the unfamiliar: In the U.S., starting with a 2004 performance at UCLA, Raabe and his brass-heavy band have built a following by delivering polished performances of popular tunes from a distant time, numbers that are invariably more winsome and witty than most contemporary songwriting.

These songs usually feature fey-to-naughty lyrics — sample lines from "Rosa, My Wonderful Rosa": "Last summer, my heart was under great duress/When I saw Rosa in her swimming dress" — but the arrangements and orchestration are less the raucousness of the nightclub in "Cabaret" and more a refinement that might be found in a period supper club.

Onstage, Raabe is not the tawdry Joel Grey figure ("I am almost decadent," he said, in a wistful tone) but more the Fred Astaire type, austere, slim and always impeccably dressed.

Asked if he would ever consider performing in public in anything other than tie and tails, there was a slight pause -- of horror, perhaps? -- before he stated that "even in the bathroom I would wear a tuxedo to sing."

Appropriately, the figure he cites as his strongest American influence is Cole Porter. He favors not so much the '50s-era Porter of "Kiss Me, Kate" fame, but the "Just One of Those Things" younger gadfly/wordsmith from the '30s.

In concerts, Raabe happily covers Porter and Irving Berlin, but most of the show is given over to music from pre-Nazi Germany. His shows function as hidden history lessons presented as entertainment, a tutorial in, with apologies to Michael Feinstein, "Das Grosse Deutsche Liederbuch" ("The Great German Songbook").

Raabe has strong hopes for what concert-goers may find in this music and his performances of it.

"This is a ticket to a better world — a mixture of kitschy atmosphere and black humor, a mixture of human beings and strange harmonies," he said. "It is the reason I am going on stage and why I love this music, because this music keeps me away from the outside world."

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