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.

June 10, 2010

Omar Rayo, 1928-2010.

Colombian painter and plastic artist Omar Rayo has passed away. Primarily active in optical art (Op art), Rayo — the winner of the 1970 Salón de Artistas Colombianos (Salon of Colombian Artists) — was perhaps best known for his works employing abstract geometry. Having begun his career as a caricaturist, Reyo completed his artistic studies via correspondence with the Academia Zaer of Buenos Aires.

Some 2,000 of Rayo's works (examples can also be viewed here) are on permanent display at the Museo Rayo de Dibujo y Grabado Latinoamericano in his hometown of Roldanillo, a facility inspired by Mayan architecture — designed by Mexican artist Leopoldo Gout — which also houses some 500 works by other Latin American artists. Since opening in 1981, the Museo Rayo has become an important cultural centre for the exhibition and study (of engraving in particular) of Latin American art.

June 7, 2010

World Oceans Day.

On Tuesday the second annual official World Oceans Day will be celebrated. First suggested by the Canadian government at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, it had been celebrated unofficially until receiving UN endorsement in 2009. It's an opportunity to not only consider the world's oceans but also reflect on our relationship with them. Some 74% of the Earth's surface (or roughly 361 km²) are covered by a continuous body of water, conventionally divided into several oceans and seas. It's a vast quantity — some 1.3 billion cubic metres, more than half of which over 3,000 metres deep — and its sheer size may very well be one of the reasons we tend to take it for granted.

In the Solar System, Earth is the only planet with liquid water on its surface. While we may one day discover water on some of the Solar System's moons, or even on planets in other systems, it may prove a long and in many ways impractical trek for a drink. Never mind that access mightn't be unrestricted; even on Earth we have great difficulty sharing and distributing the oceans seemingly infinite resources. Not that the oceans simply serve as a reservoir: they're the very cradle of life on our planet and home to a myriad of creatures. Life evolved in the oceans three billion years prior to the occurrence of plants and animals on land. Thus the oceans are, in a sense, the ancestral home of all life on Earth.

The oceans generate most of the oxygen we breathe, they absorb carbon-dioxide, and have a significant effect on our climate. The evaporation of ocean water is the source of most rainfall, while the temperature of the oceans determine climate and wind patterns. Yet the vitality of the world's oceans is threatened by our activities and the climate changes they've brought about. Over-exploitation, illegal and unregulated fishing, destructive fishing practices and pollution — particularly from land-based sources — threaten vulnerable marine ecosystems. Increased sea temperatures, sea-level rise, and acidification caused by changes in the climate further threaten not only marine life, but coastal and island communities as well as national economies.

The oceans area also essential to trade: roughly 90% of the world's non-bulk, non-perishable cargo is shipped across the seas. Despite being slow, shipping remains significantly less costly than other types of transcontinental transport. Because of this, the oceans are also affected by criminal activity. Piracy may look cool at the cinema, but in reality armed robbery threatens the lives of mariners and the safety of shipping. Smuggling of contraband and trafficking of people endanger lives, security, and peace not only across the oceans but eventually across lands as well.

Serving as the world's transport medium of choice entails other hazards: though silicone-based paints are now used to keep fouling organisms (like barnacles) off ships' hulls, the majority of the more than 51,000 commercial vessels that ply the world's oceans have hulls treated with biocides that poison and contaminate marine life, including commercial fish species — placing human health at risk. Ships also produce almost as much air pollution as half of the total number of cars on the planet (some 300 million), propelled by cheap sulphur-rich "bunker-oil" which produces tiny particles of soot and sulfuric acid known to damage lungs, and believed to be responsible for as many as 60,000 deaths a year worldwide.

The oceans are essential to the health and survival of all life on the planet, they provide nutrients that help sustain us, and are of great economic importance to everyone who relies on fishing, tourism, and other marine resources for income. So take some time on Tuesday to celebrate the oceans and their inhabitants, the nourishment they provide, their importance for trade and communication. (It could be as easy as watching Finding Nemo with the kids.) While The Ocean Project's theme this year is Oceans of Life, the UN's theme is Our Oceans: opportunities and challenges, and though most events in Canada will be held along our ocean coasts, those of us inhabiting the largely landlocked prairies should take time to consider what's downstream the many rivers that provide our needs. Each and every on of them eventually empties into the oceans. Along with whatever we put in them.

Note: this is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on June 7, 2009.


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