November 11, 2010

Industrial Complex.

Referring to Nitzer Ebb's new album as a "comeback" can hardly be fair, given the degree to which the band's principal members have been busy making music. Douglas McCarthy developed his project with Terence Fixmer, and lent his distinct voice to recordings by Recoil, Kloq, Motor, and Warren Suicide, while Vaughan "Bon" Harris kept busy with his Maven project, remixed Godhead, Depeche Mode, and Julien-K, produced recordings by 13 Mg. and Billy Corgan, and recorded sessions with the Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Evanesence, and the Lemon Ensemble. Drummer Jason Payne worked with Maven, the Wild Colonials, the Eastside Sinfonietta, Sugar To Poison, Kamaal Malak, and Le Fin Du Monde.

In other words, though they didn't exclusively work together under the Nitzer Ebb moniker, the band's members hardly fell off the face of the Earth. Yet fifteen years is an absence long enough for an entire new generation of listeners to emerge, and the context within which Nitzer Ebb once operated — never mind the industry — to completely change. While older fans may consider the band's previous recordings inimitable classics, younger ears may only regard them a mere curiosity; a fact that represents a major challenge to any pop artists who decide to record new music after a long break. That said, Nitzer Ebb's new album not only recaptures but also enhances the band's particular strengths, enough to amply satisfy old fans and sufficiently impress (or at least startle) contemporary electronic music audiences.

A stark difference the band must've encountered would be the lack of anything remotely reminiscent of the recording industry they'd left behind. Practically the entire nature of recording and disseminating music — whether serious or popular, mainstream or alternative — has irrevocably changed in the past decade. Clearly seeking to adapt, Nitzer Ebb opted for allowing the odd new track trickle out through various new modes of marketing, rather than releasing singles to market their new album in the once established fashion.

Ironically, Once You Say, their first new recording to be aired, premiered in a most traditional fashion on DJ Dave Clarke's White Noise show (part of VPRO's 3voor12 programming on Netherlands' 3FM) in June 2007. With broadcasting as well as reception now largely being digital, copies of the track (in various states of compression, and the 3FM call sign occasionally edited out) quickly spread among fans. Apart from being the first new Nitzer Ebb track in a dozen years, it quickly garnered further buzz for featuring backing vocals by Depeche Mode's principal composer Martin Gore. A collaboration apparently arrived at when the band concluded the track needed a powerful gospel voice to be completed, and Gore was the first person in that category they could think of.

Next, an alternative version of Payroll appeared on the Saw IV soundtrack (and the Advanced Electronics vol. 6 compilation) in the fall of 2008, having been performed — as was Once You Say — during Nitzer Ebb's live performances the previous year. The album opener Promises was included on the first soundtrack of the television series NCIS in February 2009, Never Known appeared on the Saw VI soundtrack, while an alternative version of that track was released on a limited edition USB flash drive — which also included an alternative version of Down On Your Knees. With nearly half of their new recordings acting as product placements after this newfangled fashion, one could be forgiven for regarding Industrial Complex itself as a compilation album. (Which, to further the irony of the relentless changes ripping through the recording industry, is what all long-playing albums once were.)

In keeping with the band's new, "corporate" image — frustrating what few completists remain out there in a most cunning fashion — there are two versions of the album available (not counting digital varieties, and the strictly limited picture disc edition): a red-sleeved single-disc "tour edition" as well as a white-sleeved two-disc edition. Each has additional North American and European permutations, with the contents of the two-disc edition's bonus disc of alternative versions of some of the album's tracks differing depending on whether one procures the "regular" European or the "special" Belgian edition, while the North American two-disc edition is the only one to include the additional new track On the Road. However, the content and running order of the main disc are identical to that available from digital purveyors: the same eleven tracks with Traveling added as a "bonus".

Wrapped in Doug McCarthy's smart, stark design, centering on the graphic symbols of the World's four major reserve currencies (with the "€" and "£" replacing the "$" on the front of the European editions), Nitzer Ebb's new business-like demeanor contrasts with their past athletic, militant style in Emma Cohan's suggestive low light portraits. The commercial surface doesn't immediately betray the emotional content within; the failure, loss, defeat, shame, acceptance, and resurgence lurking beneath. (Curiously, McCarthy also casually employs the "she said" meme — commonly instantly adding a salacious twist to poorly defined sentences or thoughts — to surprisingly dramatic effect on a couple of the album's tracks.)

McCarthy sings far more than bellows, his lyricism developed beyond adolescent sloganeering baiting and provoking with seemingly political themes, concentrating instead on the more personal tropes that began to emerge in earnest on the band's third album, 1990's Showtime. McCarthy doesn't merely lament failed relationships, he assumes responsibility for failure — a quality that's become as scarce in our society as civility, humility, and compassion. In fact, the courage with which Nitzer Ebb dare to present themselves vulnerable (as, for instance, on Going Away) is what raises them head and shoulders above practically every other band in their genre, the brashness coupled with guts to to express sentimentality without succumbing to self-pity.

For every ending, there's a beginning, and for all the insight into middle-aged companionship contained in a track like I Don't Know You — "I've been looking at my scars / You've got yours / Let's make them ours" — it could just as well be interpreted as advice to younger, less experienced ears: "I want to know you / I don't know you / but I want you to think more". Yet, while tracks like Once You Say and Down On Your Knees could also be interpreted as more than mere reflections on the politics of personal choice, it's perhaps with Payroll — the most North American-inflected track on the album — with it's exploration of the "we're all in this together" mentality that the band comes closest to purely political themes.

The time principal composer Bon's spent as a session hand, as well as studying composition, has payed off in a more varied palette, allowing for the melodious elements previously skulking around the band's music to spring forward — as in Hit You Back, an electro blues combining synth pop with hip hop, which takes on a full orchestral flourish towards its dramatic conclusion. Compared to Nitzer Ebb's last album of original recordings, 1995's Big Hit, guitars appear absent, the overall sound stripped back to the basic combination of electronic bass and percussion the band thoroughly exploited early in its career. Yet many of the sounds on this album have been sculpted much like those of conventional pop, rock, and blues recordings, with pretty much the same effects and devices.

The smart shaping of white noise and use of wavetables, seamlessly fused with acoustic percussion, is skillfully combined within a spacious, uncluttered soundscape (though occasionally compressed a tad hard) to create Nitzer Ebb's signature tight grooves from an impressively complex array of sounds. Produced by Bon with commercial composer John O'Herron (with input from the band's long-time collaborator Mark "Flood" Ellis, and former Sabres of Paradise and The Aloof veteran Jagjit Singh Kooner), Industrial Complex advances the broad variety of styles with which Nitzer Ebb have previously imbued their distinct, minimal take on pop music. Their youthful verve may have been tempered by experience, but Nitzer Ebb have lost not one iota of energy — as demonstrated by the furiously driving Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Clearly not afraid to act their (total) age, their music is still very much industrial. Just more complex.

This is a slightly updated version of the article posted on March 12, 2010.

October 28, 2010

Hans Arnold, 1925-2010.

The Swiss-Swedish artist and illustrator Hans Arnold has passed away. Known in particular for his illustrations of books — like the 1973 re-issue of Astrid Lindgren's Allrakäraste syster (Most Beloved Sister), Gunnel Linde's Jag är en varulvsunge (I am a Werewolf Cub), and Bland tomtar och troll ("Among Gnomes and Trolls", a popular folklore and fairy tale annual) — animated films like Matulda och megasen, and the Gothic horror sleeve of ABBA's Greatest Hits, Arnold's unique blend of erotic and mildly horrific themes ensured him a status as "cult" artist.

Born in Sursee, Switzerland, Arnold's first artistic endeavours included crafting caricatures of particularly draconian school teachers, which he'd peddle among his class mates. Having completed his artistic education at the Hochschule Luzern (the Lucerne School of Art and Design, Switerland's oldest arts school), Arnold spent a couple of years in Paris, before moving to Sweden in 1947. His intricate style, rich in detail, often referenced the text his illustrations complemented in such a way that they practically became puzzles in themselves.

Arnold's weekly visual contribution to the magazine VeckoRevyn ("Weekly Review"), which appeaered regularly between 1954 and 1979 under the heading "veckans chock" ("the weekly shock"), made him a household name in Sweden. Despite more recently fading from public view, his dense fusion of surrealism and underground art inspired a broad range of artists in a variety of fields. Examples of his work, as well as images from one of Arnold's last retrospectives, can be seen here.

October 6, 2010

A Foolproof Escape Plan.

On his second album Yoav Sadan continues to reinvent guitar playing, with the technique he's devised for himself having, quite accidentally, come upon it pounding out rhythms for passersby in a park one day. Hitting, pulling, plucking, thumping, teasing, and only occasionally strumming or picking like a conventional player would, he uses his guitar as a rudimentary sound generator, rather than a traditional performance instrument.

Feeding the resulting sounds through the various electronic gadgets that make up his homespun sound-processing assembly, known as "The Beast", allows Yoav to perform practically every "instrument" heard on these recordings, and creates a vast, cavernous space for his songs to inhabit. His sound remains familiar, yet the style has matured, the system gained more complexity, and not every sound is teased exclusively from his battered guitar.

More importantly, Yoav's writing seems more focused, resulting in a more concise album than his somewhat sprawling 2008 debut Charmed & Strange. Whether this is the result of the inclusion of real additional instruments and musicians, or simply a lusher production, A Foolproof Escape Plan is a more cohesive album than its predecessor — easier to grasp particularly to listeners accustomed to the two conventional parts of a vinyl LP.

From the plucky blues of opener Greed, to the spooky Moonbike, or the wistful Country poignancy of Spidersong, and the Latin-inflected closer We All Are Dancing, a more dynamic soundscape expands, in which the additional "real" instruments and musicians detract little from the processed guitar noises. Yoav's palette has grown, the variety of sounds used increased, but the basic premise still hinges on his excellent voice accompanied by strong, memorable melodies arranged in a minimal fashion.

Musically, Yoav's machine-dependent plantar electro folk is quite similar to the ostinatos common in synth pop, his voice acting as counterpoint to the artificial motifs in many cases reminiscent of the long melody lines employed by bands like Depeche Mode. And though this seemingly folksy barefoot poet adds a heaping helping of contemporary R&B and Hip Hop, his unconventional approach is precisely what makes him one of the most innovative electronic pop musicians currently around.

Lyrically, the album's songs seek a means of leaving a world of uniform conformity, in which the highest ambition on offer is to be the most proficient consumer and nothing less. This is most clearly articulated in Greed, the ode to Western pop culture's happy-go-lucky emblem that is Yellowbrite Smile, and Safety in Numbers — the last in a way finishing the thought begun on Yoav's 2007 "breakthrough hit" Club Thing, though addressing a much broader context.

Yoav turns his most sentimental in 6/8 Dream and, particularly, Easy Chair, a dreamy rumination on the passing of time and the very Cape Town chair in which he began honing his guitar skills during his early teens. Which perhaps makes this an album of songs about discovering oneself and the world one has come to inhabit, more than an actual device for escape. Viewed as such, A Foolproof Escape Plan does indeed appear flawless.

October 2, 2010


Thirty years into his career, watching a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film is like attending a family reunion. His latest feature, Micmacs à-tire-larigot is no exception, as even those who've only seen the odd Jeunet film are bound to recognise at least a couple of the remarkable faces the director tends to employ. There's Urbain Cancelier and Belgian Yolande Moreau who both appeared in Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain; there's Louis-Marie Audubert, Rachel Berger, Stéphane Butet, Tony Gaultier, Stéphanie Gesnel, and Myriam Roustan who all appeared in Un long dimanche de fiançailles.

Then there's Jean-Pierre Becker, and André Dussollier who appeared in both Un long dimanche… and …Amélie; Patrick Paroux who appeared in Un long dimanche…, …Amélie, and Delicatessen; Gérald Weingand who appeared in Un long dimanche…, …Amélie, and Foutaises; and of course Dominique Bettenfeld, and Dominique Pinon who've appeared in practically everything Jeunet's directed in the past couple of decades. Never mind the stalwarts behind the camera, like editor Hervé Schneid, production designer Aline Bonetto, costume designer Madeline Fontaine, sound editor Gérard Hardy, location scout Aude Lemercier, stunt coordinator Rémi Canaple and the Cauderlier family stunt team, among others.

The familial impression is further strengthened by the director recycling scenes form his previous films, to a point where (for instance) Dominique Pinion appears to be appearing as himself, taking another turn in a role he's previously played. Yet the clear nods aimed at longtime fans don't turn Micmacs… into a "greatest hits" compilation. Instead, the impression is one of watching a new production by one's favourite small, local theatre company, as opposed to an internationally renowned film director's latest feature, which just happened to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Though the film's title (perhaps most closely translated as "Endless Shenanigans") may evoke the indigenous people of the Atlantic provinces and the Gaspé peninsula to many Canadians, Micmacs… is actually a diverting, light farce on the rather serious subject of manufacturing and trading in armaments. Its narrative follows the exploits of former video rental store clerk, who — aided by a ragtag band of allies — attempts to avenge himself on the two weapons manufacturers whose various lethal goods have unalterably altered his life.

It's not the most intrinsically merry premise perhaps, but — as director Jeunet has demonstrated in the past — polemics on serious subjects touching everyone's lives can more readily find an audience if they first manage to make it smile. Sending out an invitation that's hard to refuse is always more effective than beating people over the head with the issue. Besides, as a filmmaker, Jeunet has never been interested in creating anything except imaginary worlds and his films have never contained any "realistic" grit — care-worn and well-loved artifacts, certainly, but all of them well-maintained and retaining a shade of their original colour.

As it was to Orson Welles, to Jeunet film is merely a device for wonderment, a toy, a long row of treasure chests in the cinematic attic — one containing sets, another costumes, a third stories, and so on. Jeunet seems to endeavor to throw as many of them open as he possibly can with each of his films. However, among the familiar there are also brand new faces. For example, leading man Daniel "Dany" Boon, who walked on in the shoes of the films protagonist just as the originally cast Jamel Debbouze (perhaps best known to international audiences for his part in …Amélie) walked off.

Boon, currently one of France's greatest comedy stars and a filmmaker in his own right, owns his part (his character's younger self even portrayed in the film by his son Noé) to a point at which it almost becomes difficult to tell whether one's watching a film by Boon or Jeunet. But the latter's aesthetics and brand of narrative is ultimately unmistakable. (A long time admirer of sculptor and "electromechanomaniacal" device creator Gilbert Peyre, Jeunet specifically created the Micmacs… character Petit Pierre — a designer of ingenious automatons and contraptions — in order to include six of Peyre's creations in his film.)

Though written in merely three months by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant (Jeunet's main writing partner over the past decade), the idea for Micmacs… dates back to the mid-nineties, when Jeunet and his collaborator at the time, Marc Caro, were editing their second feature, La cité des enfants perdus, near one of the arms manufacturer Dassault's factories. Frequently encountering Dassault employees over lunch in a nearby restaurant, Jeunet began wondering about their private lives. He tried to imagine these seemingly well-adjusted, educated, polite engineers, putting their kids to bed at night, having spent the major part of the day inventing ways in which to most effectively kill and maim other people.

Despite shunning realistic milieus, Jeunet pays a lot of attention to detail, and meticulously researching a subject even if he doesn’t intend to depict it in an entirely realistic fashion. After all, the emotions he seeks to evoke are quite real even if set in peculiar circumstances. Hence, the process of making Micmacs… included a visit to a major weapons manufacturer, and even incorporates an original soundbite from one of France's leading gunsmiths, expounding how much more profitable it is to wound or maim an enemy than it its to kill him.

Such pronouncements are being made in the real world, even though they may seem to have originated in a lugubrious nightmare. To Jeunet the obvious countermeasure to such intricately dedicated malevolence is a casual ragtag group of ingenious panhandlers; an improvised troupe taking on cynicism and detachment from ordinary life with a unique blend of comedy and acrobatics. In other words, Jeunet's response to evil is (as it was in his first feature, Delicatessen) to send in the clowns.

From a grander perspective, Micmacs… can be said to explore the impact and growing import of social networks in people's lives, and the manner in which they in some cases come to replace or serve as a substitute for a "normal" family. Not just in our personal lives but in society as a whole: new collectives are taking shape. As insubstantial as Jeunet's film may first seem, it celebrates the collective feats of the common man — what the self-appointed elites of our societies refer to as "little people", or, plainly, the vast majority of us — and the effect each one of us can have on our societies when we band together.

Elected representatives, and a media obsessed with what doesn't even qualify as gossip, are portrayed in Micmacs… as little else than a puppetry show of sedative propaganda. It's a film that clings to the ideal, now commonly considered quaint and naïve, that callous individuals not only deserve but — more importantly — can be held accountable. Not that Jeunet ever gets completely dogmatic: even the film's somewhat grotesque gunsmiths are shown to have intensely human traits. Neither is the film a Luddite call to arms against technology. Rather, it's a case of taking on hi-tech with a much lowlier variety; scavengers whose greatest assets are their communally accumulated wits gunning after an industry that's armed to the teeth with the latest gear.

But the sheer ingenuity the film's heroes rely on is complemented by precisely the kind of social networks the digital age has made possible. Never mind that the filmmaker himself has relied on cutting edge technology for special effects and editing throughout his entire career, Micmacs… being no exception with some 350 visual effects shots. Ultimately, Micmacs… isn't so much a story of asymmetrical class-warfare, as it is the indulgent creation of a born cineaste. From the Tex Avery intimation (Jeunet published a book about Avery shortly before the pioneering animator's death), to the half-dozen Max Steiner scores (that of The Big Sleep in particular) combined in its soundtrack, Micmacs… is as much about creating a world as it is about changing one.

Additional input by Mathias Luthi.

September 20, 2010

International Day of Peace.

September 21 is the International Day of Peace, originally devised to strengthen the ideals of peace within and among all nations and all peoples. Proclaimed in 1981 by the United Nations to fall on the third Tuesday of September in order to coincide with the opening of its General Assembly's regular sessions, its date was fixed in 2001 when the day was also declared a global day of ceasefire.

For the past 27 years, the day has begun with the UN's Secretary-General ringing the Peace Bell at the organisation's New York headquarters, calling on all peoples and all nations to cease hostilities for a day, and reflect on the causes of of conflict in our world. The day is intended as a respite from further violence, during which aid can be administered to victims of conflict, and entrenched positions — locking opponents in mortal struggle — can be reconsidered. Given the astounding proliferation of not only armed conflict but armaments, there is much to contemplate.

There are currently seven major armed conflicts in progress around the world, with at least 30 "lesser" conflicts carried on with varying degree of intensity. The definitions vary, as most of these are civil or "intrastate" wars, fuelled as much by racial, ethnic, and religious animosities as by ideological fervour. Yet, regardless of their nature, the majority of these conflicts' victims are civilians — a distinguishing feature of practically all recent wars.

During the First World War, civilians made up fewer than 5% of all casualties. Today, 75% or more of those killed or injured in wars are non-combatants. By very modest estimates, close to a million people (practically the entire population of Edmonton) have been killed in the currently ongoing conflicts, some of which have persisted for over four decades.

Women and children — those least responsible for causing the conflicts — have become the primary victims of war. They are increasingly both its targets and its instruments. Over two million children have been killed in armed conflicts over the past century. Another six million have been permanently disabled, while more than 250,000 are currently exploited as child soldiers.

Thousands of women and girls have been raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence and exploitation. As the most vulnerable members of society, rarely wielding any significant power, women and children are killed, maimed, orphaned, abducted, deprived of health care and education, and — should they survive — left severely traumatised. All of them deserve the attention and protection of the international community.

More than any other continent, Africa has been marred by war. Over 20 major civil wars since 1960 have caused untold economic and social damage to its nations. As food production is practically impossible in areas of conflict, famine — in addition to war — has condemned generations of African children to lives of misery. In certain cases threatening the existence of traditional cultures.

But even those of us lucky enough to inhabit largely peaceful nations cannot avoid the effects of seemingly faraway wars. The massive displacement of people within countries and across borders — which has become another distinguishing feature of post-Cold War armed conflict — bring waves of refugees to our door. The scarred diaspora from areas of conflict challenge not only the welfare arrangements of our societies but our sense of security as well; as long as our neighbours' safety is compromised, we aren't entierly safe either.

Conflict prevention, mediation, humanitarian intervention, and demobilisation are crucial to the success of developmental assistance efforts. Health, nutrition, and education programs cannot succeed in nations at war — as billions of dollars in development assistance already wasted in war-ravaged countries readily prove. But the peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding efforts currently in place are merely band-aids, in most cases incapable of dampening the cumulative impact of armed conflict, rising commodity prices, recession, or environmental disasters (like drought).

Canada's currently involved in one major armed conflict, as part of the International Security Assistance Force (IASF) in Afghanistan, directly involving over 2,800 Canadians as of August 2010. Yet, our government is disinclined to admit we are at war, since no official declaration preceding Canada's involvement was made (Canada's only declared war three times: in 1939 on Germany, in 1940 on Italy, and in 1942 on Finland, Hungary, Japan, and Romania). For a country that in its 143 year history hasn't known the horrors of war on its own soil, or participated in colonial conquest, Canada's decisions to take up arms in the past decade have been preceded by precious little debate.

In stark contrast to the commitments of the international community, international military spending continues to rise. In 2009, global military expenditure totalled US$ 1.53 trillion — an increase of 6% since 2008, and 49% since 2000. Military expenditure comprised approximately 2.7% of global GDP in 2009, with all regions seeing significant increases since 2000 except Central and Western Europe. Despite 27 mandatory multilateral embargoes in force — twelve imposed by the UN, fifteen by the EU — against fifteen states in 2007, global arms production also continued to increase.

The combined sales of the top 100 armament producers reached US$ 347 billion in 2007 — an increase of 11% in nominal terms and 5% in real terms since 2006. The value of the top 100 producers has increased by 37% since 2002. Forty-four US companies accounted for 61% of the top 100 producers' sales in 2007, while 32 West European companies accounted for 31%. India, Israel, Japan, and Russia accounted for most of the rest.

The US and Russia remain the by far largest armaments exporters, followed by Germany, France, and the UK. Together, these five nations account for 78% of the volume of exports between 2004 and 2008. They have been the top suppliers since the end of the Cold War, and account for three-quarters of all exports annually. With US$ 721 billion worth of expenditures (nearly half of its federal budget) the US accounted for practically half of all the world's purchases — more than the combined total of the next 32 nations.

The International Day of Peace offers an opportunity to inquire whether the enormous amounts of money spent on armaments wouldn't be better invested in health care, education, science, and culture — areas where increased investment would not only exceedingly enhance human welfare, but do far more to secure peace than any amount of guns ever could. The day offers an opportunity to consider whether it's wise to spend US$ 225 for each person in the world on armaments, when a billion people worldwide struggle to survive on US$1 a day.

It offers an opportunity to ask whether we've got our priorities right, utilising our assets to supply a gun to one in every ten people while 20% of the global population (1.1 billion people) lack access to safe drinking water. It's an opportunity for both national and international authorities to address the deep structural divisions among our societies. It's also an opportunity to address the underlying causes of war, the conflicts over power, wealth and resources — with overpopulation the towering elephant in the room nobody seems willing to approach.

But beyond the immense global issues, the day is also an opportunity to make peace on a personal level. Apart from participating in the day's events, we can take the opportunity to end the conflicts in our own lives, hold a "ceasefire" of our own. The challenge is to reconcile not after the conflict, but instead of the conflict. While we wait for our representatives — elected or otherwise — to extend the hand of mutual tolerance, we can make peace with and among ourselves.

Note: this is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on September 19, 2009.

June 22, 2010

Head First.

Goldfrapp's fifth studio album has so far been favourably regarded as a decent attempt to emulate the dizzying heights of Hi-NRG dancefloor rapture, and unfavourably regarded as a clear indication that the duo of Alison Goldfrapp and William Gregory have "fallen behind the curve": that Goldfrapp have ultimately run out of ideas. It seems many critics — who generally took their time warming to the band in the first place — seem particularly perturbed that a duo as talented and (now) highly regarded as Goldfrapp may actually admire all that octaval bassline stomp and 1980s MOR "pap" these critics themselves have spent much of their critical career deriding.

Never mind that Goldfrapp would actually take the time to carefully craft a recording not only inspired by, but sounding like, a long forgotten release from March 1984. Yet right from the very beginning, since their 2000 debut album Felt Mountain, Goldfrapp have excelled in seeking musical innovation through rejuvenation. While their latest album, Head First, successfully mimics those fluffy, airy recordings of great mainstream appeal, it cannot be accused of embodying their typical lack of technical and sonic merit.

Few of their imitators have applied such elegant flair to creating sounds that appear to belong in the past. The motifs and phrases heard on Head First do sound as though they could've been recorded thirty years ago, frequently evoking an imprecise sense of déjà vu. But the intricate detailing of the soundscape, the modelling of individual parts is quite contemporary: Goldfrapp's music invokes the past without actually imitating it. Even when refraining from breaking entirely new ground, or merely providing a fresh take on a familiar sound, Goldfrapp still have chunks of lesser bands in their stool.

Air, Daft Punk, and their ilk appear mere nostalgics, wishing to whisk their audience — but themselves in particular — into yesteryear, in comparison to Goldfrapp, who merely apply the past as window-dressing. In a sense, the duo operates like skillful scenographers, using a specific pop era as a prism through which the eternal themes of love, loss, and dancing are refracted. Criticising their method is akin to bemoaning the fact that one's favourite play has been transposed to a different era than that in which it was written in order to emphasise its message for a contemporary audience.

Though relentlessly compared to Van Halen's mid-1980s commercial pinnacle Jump, the album opener Rocket in fact has more in common with Steve Winwood's Valerie (like Rocket, faltering in the UK top 50 on its original release in 1982), and could be construed as a response to Kiss' 1977 macho-stomper Rocket Ride, dispatching its boasting self-proclaimed priapean champ in no uncertain terms. Hunt is the sole other Head First track mining a similar quietly retaliatory vein, while romantic infatuation remains the overarching theme. Interestingly for an album "set in the 1980s", it was recorded mainly with Belgian producer Pascal Gabriel, far more renowned for his work in house music at the tail-end of that decade.

Like their previous albums, Goldfrapp's latest isn't purely electronic so much as a smooth blend of electronic and acoustic instrumentation. Among its contributing musicians, listeners may notice Robert Plant's son-in-law Charlie Jones on bass (who also appeared on the last three Goldfrapp albums), guitarist Alex Lee (perhaps best remembered for his stint in Suede right before their break-up), former Black Grape drummer Gerard "Jed" Lynch, and violinist Davide Rossi, appearing on a Goldfrapp studio recording for the first time, having toured with the duo since its inception.

On the technical end, Richard "X" Philips, former UNKLE and Mo'Wax veteran Tim Goldsworthy and Goldfrapp's éminence grise Nick Batt (formerly of DNA) contribute programming, while veteran audio engineer Mark "Spike" Stent returns (having mixed Goldfrapp's 2005 album Supernature) to ensure a seamless mix. As is their wont, Goldfrapp's visual presentation reflects their current sound, and this album's graphics place Alison and Will head first among slightly surreal 1980s-pastel coloured clouds. The crisp, clean design was created by Alison with art director Mat Maitland, who's been involved with practically all Goldfrapp graphics, both in his own name and as part of the Big Active design studio.

Despite the early Eighties sheen, titles like Believer and Shiny and Warm could just as easily fit on previous Goldfrapp releases. There may be hints of Art of Noise's innovative sampler use, and the fairytale romances of Erasure (particularly in the album's title track paraphrasing Erasure's Rain), but Goldfrapp's particular sensibilities permeate every detail; Alison's deliberately obfuscated diction is as inimitable as it is suggestive. The critical ears of those nostalgic for the more idiosyncratic sound of Goldfrapp's debut may particularly find redeeming qualities in the closing Voicething, a companion piece to the preceding I Wanna Life, a collage of voice samples culled from the album's other tracks in the manner of Slippage, the final track on Goldfrapp's 2003 album Black Cherry.

If one were to lodge a complaint, it would concern duration: at barely 38 and a half minutes, Head First is Goldfrapp's shortest album to date (roughly a minute and a half shorter than Felt Mountain). As a consequence some of its titles seem a tad short as well, like the all too brief Shiny and Warm, a track that barely manages to get warm before it's suddenly over. Leaving listeners (and specifically dancers) pining for a future single release containing a substantially extended version of that particular track. However, given this album's narrative exploring the brevity of lightheaded bliss, that may precisely be the point.


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