Album-by-album: Goldfrapp

An album-by-album guide to Goldfrapp, presented in the manner of all those Trouser Press and Rolling Stone record guides I devoured when I was younger.

GOLDFRAPP

Felt Mountain (2000)                                                                                                              Black Cherry (2003)                                                                                                Supernature (2005)                                                                                                            Seventh Tree (2008)                                                                                                                  Head First (2010)

After garnering some attention via guest appearances on records by The Orbital, Tricky and Add N To (X), singer Alison Goldfrapp and instrumentalist Will Gregory began collaborating in 1999 on cinematic, experimental, keyboard-based music, using her surname as their performing name. Over the course of five LPs, Goldfrapp have moved restlessly from Mercury Prize-nominated artiness to dance club supremacy to folktronic introspection, with considerable commercial and critical appreciation.

Goldfrapp, the band, came hard on the heels of other duos that had succeeded with music heavily influenced by film soundtracks of yore. But whereas bands like Mono flickered briefly with Our Man Flint samples decorating their songs, Goldfrapp created its set pieces from scratch. Owing something to the static pulse of Portishead and the spaciousness of Air, but sounding not much like either band in the end, Goldfrapp and Gregory stake out their territory on the cunningly named Felt Mountain, a record that repeatedly aims at icy grandeur, but soft-petals its ambitions with burnished brush strokes achieved through a batch of non-rock instruments (ukulele, koto, flugelhorn) deployed alongside keyboards, and the most striking noise-maker of all, Alison’s voice. She coos, whispers, whistles and yodels on command, covering impressive stylistic ground in the process. From the day I first read someone comparing her to Shirley Bassey, I’ve never shaken that description; over a growing list of stunning ballads that began with Felt Mountain’s twin peaks, “Pilots” and “Utopia,” Alison’s held down the centre while Will’s swirling soundscapes have created some of the most cinematic moments in pop music’s long history. The astonishingly lovely “Pilots” glides through the starlit sky, a soft percussion pattern gently pushing it across deep orchestral swells and tinkling piano. Inertness as a romantic ideal. The pro-cloning “Utopia” is more forcefully dramatic; its measured tick-tock verses giving way to a soaring chorus underpinned by a startling, wordless vocal coda that I swore was a synth line until I saw her sing it in concert. The squelchy “Human” swivels its hips like a ‘60s Bond girl on the make, while “Lovely Head” sounds like the John Barry Orchestra led by Bassey and a Nordic whistling champion. It’s not a perfect record – there’s a lengthy stretch between “Pilots” and “Utopia” that’s more impressionistic than captivating – but Felt Mountain is a mighty fine, original, debut.

With that seemingly bankable M.O. established Goldfrapp ripped up the blueprint with their very next record. Taking the “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” axiom to heart, Goldfrapp arrive as most people know them on Black Cherry, mostly dispensing with experimental pieces, shifting the focus to Alison as a remix-ready dance vocalist with some serious Savage Love-worthy fetishes. Ratcheting up the intensity on a series of immensely persuasive singles, Alison adds whoops and groans to her repertoire, easily outpointing other dance-pop chanteuses like Róisín Murphy and Kylie Minogue in the process. Gregory matches her with vivacious arrangements that make hay on the strident “Twist,” the stomping “Train” and the hypnotic, baying “Strict Machine.” Roughly half of Black Cherry indulges Goldfrapp’s cinematic Dr. Jekyll side, to majestic effect. “Crystalline Green” and the title track are strong, straight-forward, glacial set pieces with trace elements of trip hop. “Tiptoe” is a hidden gem that plays like a throwaway track for 90 seconds before it does the caterpillar-butterfly thing and trades up into a gloriously windswept finale.  “Hairy Trees” briefly returns to the inscrutable quirks of Felt Mountain. Goldfrapp wouldn’t go there again, and aside from a fleeting sense that some personality has been put to pasture, this varied record is worth nearly every minute.

Supernature’s similar structure suggests Goldfrapp have settled on their formula, with slightly less compelling results. The raunch quotient is toned down a tad and the sound is a little more refined, but it’s essentially more of the same. The new ingredient is a glammy overtone best exemplified by a trio of singles. “Ooh La La” and “Ride A White Horse” are likeably pert, and even if they’re not as attention-grabbing as earlier 45s, it’s still hard to deny their motorik appeal. By adding a little honky-tonk piano, the gleam in “Satin Chic”’s eye glows brighter. These tracks neatly channel Bolan, Glitter and The Sweet, but by pairing a little Gary Numan drone with a stronger melody, “Number 1” is probably the best up-tempo song on the album. A handful of songs founder over low-impact melodies and dumb-smart lyrics, but the band still come up with the goods on a pair of slow songs, “Let It Take You,” and the fantastic “Time Out From The World.” “Ooh La La” and “Number 1” became Goldfrapp’s first UK Top 10 singles, and Supernature just missed the top spot on the album chart. With an outstanding Alan Braxe and Fred Falke remix of “Number 1” appropriately hitting number one on U.S. club charts, Goldfrapp had broken big.

Seventh Tree is a shocking volte-face. The mumbling, out-of-focus opener “Clowns” sounds like nothing else in the band’s catalog, backing in via picked acoustic guitar and hushed string accents before building to a polite climax. Then “Little Bird” does the same thing, only better, with some stirringly muscular drumming and spangly guitar driving its back half. It’s a different Goldfrapp again, and like Joachin Phoenix’ beardo, they’re not breaking character. The Polyphonic Spree-like stage costumes and mélange of woodwinds, live drums and guitars more than hint at some serious upheaval in the Goldfrapp camp, with Seventh Tree playing the Sunday morning-after to Black Cherry and Supernature’s debauched Friday and Saturday nights. And wow, do they nail an elegiac mood. Romantic loss informs the lyrics throughout, and I can’t tell you how great it is to hear that strong, flexible voice coo lines like “I’m not your kind, I’m not your girl/See, I’m in your car, but not your life,” after some of the inanities on the previous album. The crestfallen “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” is a classic on par with their best work, establishing once and for all that Goldfrapp are surely among the best ballads bands ever. The stunning, somersaulting lead single “A&E” was probably too challenging for a mainstream audience, but still rode the band’s store of goodwill into the UK Top 10, even as Seventh Tree matched its predecessor’s Number Two showing on the album chart. With top examples of song craft like “Happiness,” “Road To Somewhere” and the driving, rocking “Caravan Girl” strewn throughout, Seventh Tree emerges from a pitched battle against audience expectations as the best record of Goldfrapp’s career. Of course, such artistic boldness rarely reaps rewards at the box office, so you can imagine what happened next.

Five years after their glam slam, Goldfrapp steps onto the set of Xanadu as if Seventh Tree never happened, and the resultant album, Head First, is their weakest record by a considerable margin. The half-decade after Supernature had seen all sorts of disco-synth throwbacks on the charts, and with Seventh Tree‘s short shelf-life in mind, Head First seems like a panicky response. As if it’s a dream sequence from Flight Of The Conchords, this episode sees Alison and Will awaken back in 1982, wearing jumpsuits and surrounded by crates of Rolands and Oberheims, whereupon they start playing with the fat preset sounds. But rather than aspiring to the heights attained by UK antecedents like OMD, Blancmange and Yazoo, Head First is closer in spirit to their flabby American counterparts, with echoes of Journey, Laura Branigan and “She’s A Beauty”-era Tubes in all its fizzing, gated synth puffiness. First single “Rocket” and the title track are reasonably appealing, but they veer too close to the aforementioned lightweights to warrant much respect. Moreover, they really sound like they came from the end credits of an Andrew McCarthy flick. But there are some diamonds in the rough. The choppy “Hunt” plays around with some minor-key chording and more spaciousness than the record generally permits. It actually sounds like the last M83 album, and that’s a compliment. The nearly-there “Dreaming” opens with a sequenced bassline lifted from Cerrone’s disco classic “Supernature,” before fanning out into billowy Samantha Fox pop that makes pretty good use of Alison’s voice, if not the lyrical acuity on display all over Seventh Tree. It’s an album fraught with problems both creative and aesthetic, from vocal parts that pivot on disappointingly short two-bar melodies, to pushy compression that leaves ears tingling in the gaps between songs. In its hurry to finish, Head First (apt title, that) even eschews Goldfrapp’s greatest weapon, the killer ballad. In one sense, I guess you have to admire Goldfrapp’s dedication to creating an era-specific artifact, because one of those aerated, stately torch songs mightn’t have fit the mood. But it’s 1982, guys. Would it have killed ya to write an “Only You”?

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