Monday, September 9, 2013

Album of the Week #7: Goldfrapp--Tales of Us

Fall has arrived and so has a landslide of new music titles.  This week, I'm taking a look at Goldfrapp's sixth album, Tales of Us.  If you are not familiar with who Goldfrapp are, it's OK.  America has yet to really wake up to this band, and they seem to like it that way.  They tour rather infrequently, and are most certainly not out to compete with Lady Gaga or Katy Perry for chart domination here.  Alison Goldfrapp was a sometime singer with UK trip-hop artist Tricky, and Will Gregory mainly a studio musician who played saxophone on Tears For Fears Songs from the Big Chair (see "Working Hour").  Will also played keyboards (lots of them), and Alison was a songwriter with operatic training, and they eventually formed a partnership that sees her as the face and stage presence aside Will's cinematic soundscapes.  Their first album, Felt Mountain, appeared in 2000 to rave reviews.  An atmospheric record, it featured lots of haunting strings, a bit of dark acoustic guitar and bass (courtesy of Portishead friend Adrien Utley), and a little bit of electronica on songs like "Utopia".  This sound was blasted open with their sophomore effort, Black Cherry (2003), filled with buzzing synthesizers and slamming drum machines ("Strict Machine" for one).

Goldfrapp (the band) made it clear that every album would be a little bit different from here.  Supernature (2005) blended sounds from both albums into a great hybrid that brought them their biggest sales in the UK, while Seventh Tree (2008) recoiled from all the synthetic dance music, opting for pastoral English countryside folktronica, coming off like a mix of Cocteau Twins etherealism and Nick Drake's sad reflection.  Head First (2010) has now been criticised by both Alison and Will for being too hastily recorded and too blatantly pop.  To some extent, they may be right, although that album isn't nearly as bad as they would have you believe, as it was their most direct statement, written while Alison was very in love, and it shows.

Like all other Goldfrapp records, Tales of Us is a reaction to what came before, and is Goldfrapp's most elegiac and haunting record yet.  The cover art sets the tone, with Alison strolling through a group of parked cars at night, headlights trained on her, in black and white.  It's in stark contrast to Head First's pinky-blue sky with her head floating in the middle, and the music is just as representative of the cover art as the cover art is of the music.  All the songs feature one word titles, namely names (a possible indirect reference to Cocteau Twins' Treasure album, in which every song featured a Greek name).  It's a mood piece and a collection, one that works much more effectively as a full length album than single tracks.  "Jo" sets the tone with a much more acoustic based sound than the previous album's pop-tronica.  It's quickly followed by "Annabel" and "Drew", two of the best and most beautiful songs on the album.  The former is quite sad, based on a harpsichord riff, and spins at length in sonic reference to Felt Mountain's lush textures.  The latter is a melodic centerpiece of the first half of the album, and features some of Alison's most intriguing lyrics and beautiful lyrics and singing to date.  "Ulla" and "Alvar" round out the first half with lush strings and Goldfrapp's sensual coo.  It becomes apparent that she disguises many of her lyrics through the delivery so the listener can make their own conclusions as to what she might be saying.  It's an open-ended gambit, but makes you want to listen closer just to pin down the meaning in the lyrics.

"Thea" has been described as a traditional Goldfrapp stomper, although I think that is a bit of a misnomer and an oversell.  It is, however, a great song, and the most energetic moment to be found here.  "Simone" and "Stranger" are quite different in character, but both have beautiful melodies and string textures.  "Laurel" is the most ambiguous song on the album, with Alison's lyrics quite obscured, and "Clay" ends things on a musical up note, with rushing melodies and a bit of synth pulse underneath the epic arrangements.  However, while "Annabel" is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about a hermaphrodite forced to choose to become male, "Clay" is about a true story of two young male soldiers who met and fell in love during WWII, only for one to be quickly killed by the enemy, leaving the other to live on in sadness.  In these tales of us, nobody gets out unscathed, and nobody can be truly happy.  Loss is a theme that haunts this record just like ghosts of our loved ones that refuse to leave.  It's an amazing concept for a pop record, and may be the most truthful Goldfrapp album yet.  Where they go from here is anyone's guess.

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