Location-themed albums, ones whose ambiance relies on the borrowed allure of foreign places rather than some more personalized theme, seem to come equipped with a kind of musty staleness, redolent of Panama hats and Bermuda shorts. It may be because the heyday of this genre came in the '50s, with albums like Enoch Light's Persuasive Percussion and Martin Denny's Exotica series, designed to impart an air of worldly culture to space-age bachelor pads. Records like this digested the sounds of far-off countries into cute, reductively packaged snippets.
Hauschka's Foreign Landscapes is not necessarily that kind of record. Its piano-based compositions, touched with strings and other orchestral touches, strive less for exoticism than a single sensibility filtered through Portuguese, Japanese, or German lenses, depending on the song. Yet it's the same type of sample pack, at its core recalling a suitcase stamped with colorful travel stickers. This kind of musical tourism can be a creaky excuse for co-opting recognizably alien sounds, but Hauschka, also known as Volker Bertelmann, shows restraint in this regard, keeping the songs original and strangely oblique.
Most tracks here are named after a specific place, whether directly ("Mount Hood," "Kamogawa") or indirectly ("Sunny Mission," for San Francisco's Mission Street). Yet the connections between these songs and the places they're named after remain mostly personal and mysterious. This inscrutability is the first sign of Bertelmann's skill. Others follow, from his light touch on Satie-like piano whispers to fuller orchestral pieces, perhaps most fully in his use of prepared piano to achieve an odd dissonance in his sound.
It's hard to tell why Alexanderplatz, the iconic Berlin square, inspired the sprightly, flowing reaction Bertelmann has provided, but the track itself is intriguing enough that these kind of questions become secondary. In the end, the songs' ambiguous invocation of locations speaks to the personal stamps that certain places leave on a person, while also interpreting their inherent qualities. A song like "Union Square," an ode to the bustling New York City park whose subway I pass through every day, not only identifies its internal rhythms, but suggests the beauty to be found in such madness. Treatments like this ferret out the striking undertones of quotidian places, making clear the shape of their influence on Bertelmann, while still leaving room for some measure of the listener's own.