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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