I’m half-tempted to call Alison Goldfrapp the thinking person’s Madonna, but that would make the Hampshire-raised, part-convent-educated singer’s musical path, with all its attendant dressing up in character, seem rather more calculated than I suspect it is (as well as being somewhat unfair on Madonna, who, whatever you think of her music and persona, has made an indelible mark not only on pop music but the world). Alison has chosen to live out a dramatized, heightened version of life through song, and – I imagine – proceeds more by instinct than design. In character, she has taken on the role of, among other things, little girl lost, femme fatale, strict mistress, and pagan priestess. Often she seems poised halfway between Weimar Republic hedonist and soft-focus ’70s romantic singer-songwriter, although her modernised versions of both of those stereotypes are more sophisticated and complicated than the past’s. Despite this sometimes bewildering array of Bowie-esque costume and character changes, it’s impossible to overlook just what a great, multifaceted voice she has. Both vulnerable and strong, breathy and clear, she can do so much with it, and it brings to life the visual aspects of her songs, whether you can see her performing them or not.
And just as she seems to be a woman of contradictions, so too Goldfrapp the duo. A pairing of opposites; of mystery, whim and caprice on the one hand and steadfastness, attention to detail and vision on the other. Very much choosing to take the back seat and let Alison glow in the spotlight, Will Gregory manages to be still more absent from Goldfrapp’s projected image than the Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Lowe. Yet his musical input is obviously key, and based on their output, you’d have to say it’s a partnership built to last. Purely speculatively, you might then quietly wonder to yourself whether it’s that longevity which in the past allowed Alison a psychological romantic freedom, assuming there’s no smoke without fire. It’s probably unwise of the music critic to step into the realms of psychological analysis, but…
‘A & E’ is at once one of Goldfrapp’s prettiest and most enigmatic creations. It feels like a ballad, and yet halfway through it picks up speed and becomes a supercharged blue, the blue of the afternoon sky on the Saturday on which it’s set. When you look at the words on screen, there’s not a lot to them. But lyrics are inhabited by their singers, and Alison invests these – ‘I’m in a backless dress on a pastel ward, the shining’ – with both mystery (she doesn’t know how she got there) and a desperate sense of melancholy, or a melancholic sense of desperation (she’s feeling badly let down by her lover). The end result is a song not quite as bleak in its assessment of the state of play as ‘Black cherry’, in which Alison’s character knows very well how the end came about, because she was the one who blew it. ‘A & E’ is one step short of that; here there is no resolution. Lying in Accident & Emergency with your life flashing before you, before you are fixed up to go back out into it, is the perfect place to portray that purgatorial confusion.
In the spirit of the fifty word fictions currently being posted by Chan over at A wild slim alien, here are some reviews of exactly that length – tips of the hat to my long-player listening so far this year. With the odd hand gesture or wrinkled nose thrown in.
The Shortwave Set – Replica sun machine
Seduced by the alethiometeresque cover, but disappointed by the frequency with which the wan, characterless vocals of Andrew Pettitt displace the considerably more elegant singing of Ulrika Bjornse. Danger Mouse production? Check. Van Dyke Parks string arrangements? Check. Tunes? Mostly. ‘Glitches ‘n’ bugs’, ‘Distant daze’ and ‘No social’ stand out.
Elbow – The seldom seen kid
In the last couple of years Elbow’s records have been surreptitiously stealing their way to the centre of my listening world. This confirms their place there with its high musicality and wry humour. Guy Garvey’s songs are lugubrious and beautiful, even managing to reanimate the corny image of the mirrorball.
DeVotchKa – A mad and faithful telling
Romany Mexican indie with Greek or Klezmer undertones, anyone? Not forgetting occasional forays into chamber and oompah band territories? Singer Nick Urata looks like a roughed-up cross between Clooney and Morrissey. One song – ‘The clockwise witness’ – is truly great, throwing off excessive stylistic colouring for an affecting shade of blue.
Carl Craig – Sessions
How long it’s been since I was lost in niteklub rhythm. For all that Craig is a master of dancefloor dynamics, Sessions ultimately feels relentless, at home or in car. It’s a relief when the end is near and the unpredictable rhythms of ‘Bug in the bass bin’ take hold.
Four Tet – Ringer
A river whose flow is as relentless as Sessions, but out of the current more is going on. I wish I had more time to relax into ‘Swimmer’’s patterns; fretted less about the time Kieran Hebden takes to develop his swirls and eddies. Moments of life that won’t come again.
Neon Neon – Stainless style
After the Rhys-Boom Bip collaboration on Blue eyed in the red room, and Gruff’s loveable Candylion, a disappointment. In evoking the worst aspects of the eighties, it’s loud, shiny, and as attractive as the boxy lines of the De Lorean car. But ‘I lust u’ achieves a Depeche Mode-esque melancholy.
Colin Meloy – Colin Meloy sings live
Just occasionally in these solo performances, Colin Meloy is one note short of a melody. Otherwise he conveys the best of the Decemberists – as well as Shirley Collins and the Smiths – with songwriter’s conviction, stand-up comedy and helpings of the ‘campfire singalong’ spirit that he declares he is aiming for.
The Last Shadow Puppets – The age of the understatement
The chief northern monkey and his best mate perform a Dukes of Stratosphearic take on Scott Walker (and indeed Brel through Scott’s distorting mirror); in their turtleneck sweaters they’re photo-fit go-getters. The result is a noirish existential beat group and the second of many reinventions Alex Turner may yet perform.
Goldfrapp – Seventh tree
I lost interest between Black cherry and the insistently decadent electro of Supernature. Fortunately the duo are aware of the benefits of reinvention and return; Seventh tree is closest in spirit to Felt mountain but with added folk sensibility and pop nous. ‘Little bird’ floats and ‘Caravan girl’ drives along.
British Sea Power – Do you like rock music?
Like Open season, this is eight-tenths of the way to greatness; if I were eighteen and at my first Glastonbury, I would wave my flag to it. But it’s as rock as the substance you’d mine were you to tunnel into Mount Blanc, and for me that remains a problem.
Paul Weller – 22 dreams
Press would have you believe that Weller has suddenly emerged from a lengthy spell in rock purgatory. Truth is he rediscovered his touch over the two preceding sets; you could not get more pastoral than ‘Pan’ on As is now. 22 dreams expands the lightness in familiar and fresh directions.
Portishead – Third
Top bombing from Barrow, Gibbons and Utley. The avant-garde attack of the electronics is reminiscent of New Order discovering synthesisers. Next time Portishead can worry less about making it impossible for anyone to countenance putting them on as dinner party listening; this is music with which to greet the apocalypse.
Robert Forster – The evangelist
The healing power of song – I’m so glad RF rediscovered it. But how could the tone be anything other than elegiac, with fragments of Grant’s last songs among Robert’s lyrical responses to his death. As we hear those last tunes, Robert sings ‘it was melody he loved most of all’.