Sexy chanteuse Alison Goldfrapp first gained attention as a guest vocalist on Tricky’s Maxinquaye. Her honey-drenched voice caught the ear of other musicians, leading to guest spots on albums by Orbital and Add N to (X) and eventually resulted in a partnership with musician Will Gregory. The two formed Goldfrapp (the band) and together began sculpting complex, dramatic musical settings — a unique form of electronic music, related to trip-hop but existing in its own world — for her spectacular singing.
Felt Mountain is dominated by dramatic, cinematic soundscapes, most notably influenced by soundtrack composers Ennio Morricone and John Barry. If Lee Van Cleef had ever romanced Shirley Bassey, “Lovely Head,” which sounds like a score in search of a Sergio Leone film, would have been their song. Of special note is the high lonesome whistling and Alison’s heavily processed wails, which evoke a windswept mesa. Other tracks play up a ’60s spy film angle — “Human” could easily have been the theme song to a Sean Connery Bond flick. On the alpine title track, Alison cuts loose with lovely Swiss yodeling, while its continental neighbor, “Oompa Radar,” yanks German cabaret music into the 21st century. But the true summit of Felt Mountain is “Utopia,” four minutes of moody, widescreen cinemascope perfection, in which Alison’s whispered lead vocal is balanced by her keening background and a memorable keyboard line. Absolutely glorious.
Black Cherry strips away almost all of the film score drama of Felt Mountain. This would be a bigger disappointment than it is if the album’s dance-oriented, neo-new wave were less successful than it is. (Oddly, one element carried over from the debut is artwork of Alison’s legs in distress: Felt Mountain contained a photo of her scuffed-up knees, while Black Cherry shows deep gashes on her calf.) At any rate, if the debut’s vibe was making out in a movie theater balcony, the follow-up definitely aims for the bedroom, as the lyrics and the feel of the music are more overtly sexual. The first single, “Train,” chugs along like Soft Cell, right down to the sleazy ambience. “Crystalline Green” would not have been out of place on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Peep Show. “Twist” approaches straight-ahead dance pop, while “Forever” and the title track recall the moody tone of Felt Mountain.
Supernature refines the new wave/synth-pop of Black Cherry to mildly disappointing effect. The songs aren’t bad, but there’s a loss of personality in the grooves. Little here couldn’t have been done by any number of dance popsters, though doubtlessly few would do it as well. That’s the only drawback, though, and Supernature is an otherwise superior pop album. The single “Number One” is especially strong, an uncanny impression of OMD if that band had been fronted by the head cheerleader instead of a science fair nerd. (For the record, Alison’s legs appear unharmed in Supernature‘s photo of her in a memorable peacock get-up).
Like Moby’s Play, Supernature proved to be an irresistible draw for advertisers — nearly every track ended up as the backdrop to some company’s product pitch. That led Mute to compile the many remixes issued on UK singles into We Are Glitter. Goldfrapp’s music lends itself well to tinkering, and We Are Glitter is more enjoyable than most such albums, though still not an essential addition to the duo’s catalog. Most of the tracks amp up the dance beats, but the differing approaches are interesting – it’s especially instructive to contrast Alan Braxe & Fred Falke’s pulsating take on “Number One” with Mum’s ethereal, ghostly version. Not as successful, but still intriguing, is Flaming Lips’ deconstruction of “Satin Chic,” demolishing and rebuilding the track with the same flummoxed fascination as they brought to Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” When it comes to dance music, the Lips seem to be robots from a ‘50s B-movie, fascinated with disassembling the body but clueless on how to make it fit back together again.
Having become a preeminent dance-pop act of the new millennium, Goldfrapp took a step back to consider that. Self-examination resulted in the quiet, wispy folktronica soundscapes of Seventh Tree. Fans of the duo since Felt Mountain understood that folk music tendencies had been a part of Goldfrapp’s arsenal from the start, but those who’d come onboard with Black Cherry and Supernature were likely thrown for a loop by the gentle acoustic guitar strums of the lead-off track “Clowns.” A far cry from the glammy fun of the prior two albums, Seventh Tree is a beautiful little jewel of pastoral melodies and subdued but dramatic electronic flourishes. The film score feel of Felt Mountain makes a return here, but in a much more subtle setting. Alison’s vocals are typically gorgeous and even more front and center in the placid surroundings Gregory sculpts for them. The chugging “Happiness” wouldn’t have been out of place on Supernature, and the uptempo “Caravan Girl” is welcome evidence that Goldfrapp could make a credible rock record if they so chose. Seventh Tree is a quiet but effective statement of defiance from a band that refuses to be categorized.
The fat synth chords that announce “Rocket,” the first single and lead-off track of Head First, serve notice that Goldfrapp have once again returned to the ‘80s. However, it’s not the cool ‘80s that Black Cherry honored but the much-less-hip sounds of Steve Winwood’s “Valerie” or Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” that tickle Alison and Will’s fancy here. Given that Goldfrapp covered Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” on an early EP, their affection for less fondly remembered music of the Reagan/Thatcher years shouldn’t be a surprise. While Goldfrapp undeniably do the sound well, it’s a head-scratcher why they did. (That it was released nearly simultaneously with the Bird & the Bee’s loving Hall & Oates tribute album suggests that the cheesier side of the ‘80s was on the ascent in 2010.) In addition to Winwood, Branigan and Newton-John, Head First nods to late-period ABBA, especially on the title track, whose “I’m your visitor” lyrics seem to be a clear reference to the Swedes’ final album. While the duo’s way with pop hooks is undiminished, the reliance on dance beats sells Goldfrapp’s knack for atmospherics short and renders them just another pop band — albeit a very good one. It’s disheartening that the vocal loops and electronics of the filler track “Voice Thing” are the album’s most sonically creative elements. While Goldfrapp are indisputably an excellent dance band, they’re also an exceptionally smart band. What they’ve yet to prove is that they can be an exceptionally smart dance band.
In keeping with Goldfrapp’s apparent “one for the booty, one for the brain” release plan, the follow-up to their most in-your-face, over-the-top disco-glam album was bound to be a sedate one, which Tales of Us most definitely is. An album that could be listened to at full volume in a library with only an occasional shush from the librarian, Tales of Us offers moody, moonlit character studies of a diverse cast of characters drawn from books Alison was reading at the time. Obvious electronics are in short supply; the music is mostly acoustic guitar strums and an ebbing and swelling string section. Gregory releases his army of synths on the ominous, churning single “Thea,” but, otherwise, the duo is more intent on capturing the feeling of 3 a.m. on a night of insomnia, when one’s brain is too busy worrying if sleep will ever come to allow it to do so. Alison spins enigmatic yarns of gender confusion (“Anabel”), murder (“Jo” and the In a Lonely Place-inspired “Laurel”) and desire requited and (more often) unrequited in subdued but lovely melodies. If the cinematic sense of Felt Mountain was Sergio Leone, Tales of Us is Ingmar Bergman. The relative lack of pop music flourishes makes it the most difficult Goldfrapp release to engage with – the album requires multiple listens to reveal its strengths, while providing little incentive for anyone to do so. That said, it’s well worth the effort. Once it finally sinks in, this is an achingly beautiful and thoughtful album.
After that indulgence of their inner bookworm/film nerd, Goldfrapp and Gregory returned to dance floor hedonism on Silver Eye, with a novel attempt to merge both sides of their duality. Where their earlier forays into dance music were mostly celebratory — sometimes sleazy, but almost always giddy — Silver Eye is less singleminded in its pursuit of rump-shaking. Inspired by the work he did on Bjork’s Vulnicura, Goldfrapp recruited Haxan Cloak (along with John Congleton) to assist with the production, resulting in an electronic album that doesn’t feel at all indebted to the ’80s, despite a Dave Gahan guest vocal on the single version of “Ocean.” Pop hooks abound, enough of them that the album spawned four singles and still keep the insanely catchy “Become the One” as an album cut. This is thoroughly 21st century synth-pop: sequencer-fueled ravers like “Anymore,” “Systemagic” and “Everything Is Never Enough” get the toes tapping without summoning up memories of Soft Cell or Laura Branigan, On Silver Eye, Goldfrapp stake out a spot between Kylie Minogue and the Knife, and it’s a good place for them. It finally feels like they don’t believe they have to downplay their intelligence in order to get laid.