Saturday, March 27, 2010

Aural-gasm: Review of Goldfrapp, Head First

Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, the two musicians that congeal behind the aptly-named duo Goldfrapp, prove themselves, once again, to be fascinating little sonic changelings. For over a decade now, they've been driven with each album to try something a little bit off, to veer in a direction that perhaps you thought would never happen following their previous effort. It began with 2000's stunning Felt Mountain, an atmospheric, film-noir-esque spectacle that sounded as if it were the soundtrack to the best townie bar on Pluto. Black Cherry followed, a bit more erotic, a bit more electronic, perhaps slightly more dance-able, particularly with robotic-grind tracks like their famous "Strict Machine." Nevertheless, the same icy sheen that accompanied Alison's breathy, wide-ranging siren call on the debut seemed intact. 2005 saw their venture into 70s-esque disco on Supernature and brought them into heavier club rotation, with singles "Ooh La La" and "Ride a White Horse." By this point, Goldfrapp seemed somehow everywhere and nowhere at once: songs like "Ooh La La" and "Strict Machine" were joyously accompanying phone company commercials, and every up-and-coming act interested in electronic music and in reviving New Wave either counted Goldfrapp among their influences or blatantly ripped them off without credit. Still, Goldfrapp has somehow evaded the mainstream spotlight, despite the instantly gratifying accessibility of much of their music and their wide-ranging (but usually unnoticed) reign over current 'It' kids like Little Boots and La Roux, not to mention that wacky bitch Madonna (who supposedly looked to Goldfrapp's Supernature tour for inspiration on her own Confessions on a Dance Floor tour). In 2008, the pair vomited up the glam image and club-crowns to tackle pagan-esque folk music and their most dreaded instrument--the acoustic guitar--in Seventh Tree. Alison's trademark vocals carried the effort, but the spacey chill of their first three albums was replaced with a lush new warmth. Alison shed her sex-bomb image to become, as in the first track "Clowns," a mischievous circus performer.

I begin with this because even those of my friends that are familiar with some of their music know little about their history, or the far reaches of their output--I've a friend, for example, who listens to "A&E" from Seventh Tree on the way home from the club weekly, but who probably doesn't know how much he'd love their more grind-y, eminently danceable work on Supernature. Sorry for the lengthy history.

Head First finds Alison and Gregory shifting shapes once more. Now that Goldfrapp's many proteges have seemingly exhausted the 80s revival, Goldfrapp finally make a record that seemed perhaps inevitable--perhaps impossible--for so long: an unabashedly sincere, joyous, warm, orgasmic 80s album. A number of critics have claimed that Goldfrapp fell behind the curve here--after all, who hasn't revisited the 80s by now? But what these critics leave out is this: who the hell does the 80s in the way Goldfrapp can? There are moments on the album that make you want to throw your hair into a bouncing side-ponytail and slide grease over your thighs to slip into fuchsia Jazzercise spandex--see "Alive," "Believer," lead-single "Rocket"--and others that evoke the ambient experimentalism of Kate Bush, circa The Dreaming and Hounds of Love--for this, go to "Hunt" and "Dreaming." The album is short and sweet; a mere 38 minutes long, this is easily listenable on your morning walk/run/shower, and it's about all I've listened to during those activities since it leaked a week or so ago.

(Continued after the jump...)

Opener "Rocket" supposedly pays homage to Van Halen synths, and is a fabulously winking revenge song ("Oh, oh, whoa, I've got a rocket, / Oh, oh, oh, you're going on it, / You're never coming back"), that leads into the similarly upbeat "Believer," where Alison imagines herself as a functionless Cupid-on-the-go who thought her lover was "gone for good" but that, shockingly, has "come back to me--I'm a believer in you now." Paired together, it seems almost odd that both are uptempo songs coming at the same breakup theme from contrary angles; on the one hand, you've got an almost sneeringly victorious song about shedding excess human-baggage; the other laments loneliness and places only-a-bit-ironic faith in the lover that's made a triumphant return ("without you I would die" is sung sincerely, but knowing Alison's deadpan humor--after all, "Clowns" from the last album, where Alison sings of "balloons" only a clown would love is, according to her, about her revulsion to fake tits--I have a sneaking suspicion that even this faithful song is tongue-in-cheek to the nth degree). "Alive" is perhaps the most gloriously 80s track of all, possibly due to producer Richard X's contribution, and the lyrics invariably make me smile--"Jump up, put on my jeans, it feels good--they're a little tight" could be the opening of a movie Molly Ringwald should have been in. "I love the way you drive your car" likewise, somehow, sums up the casual decadence and ridiculous--but oddly earnest--image we have in our minds of the 80s. I'd kill to hear a remix of the song in a club--I'd kill for the original, too, but have a sneaking feeling that it wouldn't survive the ravages of a gay dance bar, as it has no desire to brush its teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels, and no visible R&B or rap-beat influence.

Here the album shifts gears into more atmospheric explorations of that decade--as I mentioned, "Dreaming" is perhaps their most Kate Bush-esque moment, but only really if Kate blacked out on a few bottles of wine and went spinning down the street to the beats in her head. The song is very uniquely Goldfrapp, inasmuch as it's hard to discern whether to be writhing in ecstasy or terror--there's a fine treading zone here that balances fear and desire in a way that few others do quite so well. There are references to "Portal 17" and the song's ritual chant reassures that "I'm only dreaming"--and yet, at other moments, she's pleading for her lover (?) to stay. In any case, the wordless sirensong Alison peels out at 2:52 is worth the album price. Sends shivers up my spine each time. "Hunt" is in a somewhat similar vein, though it recalls earlier Goldfrapp slow-simmering tracks like "Let It Take You" or "Deep Honey" or "Deer Stop" than it does Kate Bush. Again, there's something simultaneously frightening and erotic about the song--as if the "hunt for you" Alison warns of will lead to a hot fuck session rather than cannibalism. Perhaps both. The title track is possibly the weak link for me--but wedged between "Dreaming" and "Hunt," it naturally shines a little less brightly. It's growing, slowly, but I can say this--it's far and away the most 'happy' track on the album, or at least aurally. I haven't paid enough mind to the lyrics yet. I still enjoy the song, I don't skip it, but it's also not at the point yet where I have to start it over as soon as it finishes, as I do with several songs. "Shiny and Warm" recalls Supernature's "Satin Chic" and makes me want to cover myself in glitter and have robot-sex in some intergalactic discotheque. Nowhere else have Alison's breathy whispers been so incredibly hot, and really, no one else quite does it like Alison can--the song has a snappy beat, a repetitive structure that sticks in the head, and a wonderful way of inspiring you to stomp your heart out as you walk down the sidewalk, dancing just enough to notice yourself (but hopefully, evade the glares of those you pass by). It's the most dance-worthy track on the album, and I almost guarantee that you won't be able to keep your hips from shaking when it comes on. Play it loud. "I Wanna Life" is the 'conflict' anthem of the 80s film--the song that plays when the dancer slips up and might lose her one chance of social mobility; the soundtrack to the big fight with the friend/lover/domineering father that threatens the heroine's spunky defiance. It's the perfect penultimate song for the album, revisiting some of the chord progressions of "Rocket" but twisting them to become somehow melancholy and yearning, and the jam out at the end bears repeated listens--at that point, your realize the heroine will regain her balance, her confidence, her quirky independence, and battle whatever it is that stands in her way! The album closes with "Voicething," which many have likened to Laurie Anderson (I'm not familiar with her work)--it's a play in sound and broken vocals, something Goldfrapp have always been interested in (see "Felt Mountain" and "Oompa Radar" on their first album). Essentially a chorus of Alison's cawing, breathing, humming, and grunting, the song coalesces over a repetitive synth-beat, augmented with other strange sounds that are sometimes indistinguishable from voices--likewise, the voices are often machine-like, inhuman. It's a beautiful cool-down from the sweat you've hopefully worked up by this point.

The reviews are mixed; the sales are good; the fans are mostly pleased. Count me, however, as one that is once more struck dumb by Goldfrapp's ability to shock, astonish, and revivify a numbed dancing-fool. This makes 3 for 3 in my anticipated albums of the year (see Beach House, Teen Dream and Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me)! And it'll be a perfect companion for the warm days ahead...


  1. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the new Joanna Newsom album!

  2. I've been planning a hefty review on that, too--I just saw her live last week in Cambridge, front row, so I figured I'd incorporate a review of the show into my album-thoughts. Will hopefully get to it this weekend or next week, while on Spring Break. And it seems I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, too--didn't know you were a fan. :)

  3. Yeah, I love the new album, seems I am one of few who was not in love with Ys, but I was floored when I heard Have One on Me. I don't think I've actually listened to the whole thing yet, but there are moments of pure gorgeousness on nearly every song, sometimes extended.