I suspect that the appeal of these female-centric compilations of vintage international pop is due no less to the power of the female voice to both soothe and inflame than it is to the longstanding function of the female form as an era defining marker of style. Perhaps few better illustrations of this can be found than the image that emblazons the cover of German label Grosse Freiheit’s Funky Frauleins series: that of a long haired, lithe, and blissed-out looking blond whose naked body has been turned into one big psychedelic canvas. It’s a single picture that evokes a very specific cultural moment as easily as any painstakingly assembled collage ever could, and has the added value of tantalizing us with promises of sex and countercultural transgression.
However, as its subtitle — “Female beat, groove, funk in Germany 1968-1981” – implies, the second volume of Funky Frauleins casts a much wider net, both in terms of style and timeframe, than either its predecessor or other similar compilations dealing with the bygone pop sirens of, for instance, Japan and France. And the potential for disjunction that creates becomes apparent with the album’s very first transition, as we move from the brass-driven, late 60s bubblegum stomp of Ushci Moser’s “Sunny Honey” to the slinky disco groove of Veronika Fischer’s “He, Wir Fahr’n Mit Dem Zug”, which wears its 1977 vintage proudly on its sleeve. Clearly the unifying theme here is, above all else, that the performers are both female and German, which is probably enough for some. But, aside from the fact that the sense of disjointedness eases as the album progresses, for me it still lacked the pleasing overall cohesiveness of recent similar girl pop comps such as Nippon Girls and some of the better French Yeh-Yeh collections.
Another thing that, for me, establishes the listen-ability of these kind of collections is how well they balance kitsch with quality. Of course, what you might consider kitsch on an album like Funky Frauleins depends a lot on what cultural assumptions you bring to it. The stereotypical ideas of rigidity and authoritarian bent that the sound of German inflection might summon for many indeed provide a humorous contrast to the notions of looseness, flow and improvisation that terms like “funk” and “groove” conjure. And, if that’s your mindset, Funky Frauleins will certainly deliver on the yuks. Fasia’s strident vocal on track 3’s “Arbeitslosen – Blues” indeed seems to be trying to shout the groove into submission, while on track 11’s “Superstition”, the raw, bluesy vocal of Inga Rumpf is undermined somewhat by the fussiness with which the arrangement adheres to the Stevie Wonder original. Elsewhere, the stiff enunciation of Caterina Valente, on her English language cover of Peter Paul and Mary’s “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”, might cast some doubt upon just how sincerely she really is “diggin’” that “scene”.
But, elsewhere, Funky Frauleins delivers on the funk enough to pull it back from the brink of being a mere snark fest. Among such cuts are Anne Halgis’s “Fingernails”, whose propulsive energy and jazzy swing manage to outshine some pretty strange English lyrics, and perhaps the album’s highlight, “Can’t Understand”, a track by a pre-Giorgio Moroder Donna Summer — recording under her real name, Donna Gaines –- that’s marked by an insistent, pulsating rhythm and emotional, yet calmly authoritative vocal. Other hard driving highlights include Su Kramer’s deliciously wah-wah inflected “WieBer Sand” and Angelika Mann’s stark “Kutte”. And while these tracks may be overshadowed by the novelty of an entry like Lili Lindfors’ goofy, German language cover of “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, they are nonetheless those that provide the collection with its much needed heart and (especially) soul.
Aside from providing grist for adventurists in the pop music realm, Funky Frauleins also has something to offer fans of Euro cinema, as a number of its featured players led a double life in the world of film. Among these are the aforementioned Uschi Moser, a star of light sexploitation fare whose “Sunny Honey” initially appeared in her film Yearning For Love. College Girl Murders starlet Uschi Glas sings the lead on “Mein Wochenende”, a song composed and arranged by the great Peter Thomas, whose many scores include those to the Jerry Cotton Europsy films and the German sci-fi TV series Raumpatrouille Orion. Elsewhere, a sensuous, mildly disco-fied cover of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” is delivered by Hildegard Knef, a respected actress whose many credits include starring in The Murderers Are Among Us, the first production from East Germany’s DEFA Studios.
Overall, Funky Frauleins offered a diverting musical travelogue. But, while I suspect I’ll be consigning a good number of its standout tracks to my iPod, I doubt I’ll be giving the album as a whole a repeat listen anytime soon. Of course, this is probably a negligible distinction in this day and age, and — as much as my use of the term “day and age” — probably dates me considerably. Not all of us are as demanding of tight thematic cohesion when it comes to our albums, or of “albums” at all, come to think of it. More importantly, there are no doubt those among us who are perfectly happy just to hear a bunch of German ladies sing, and, for them, I can’t imagine Funky Frauleins being anything but deeply satisfying.