Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Goldfrapp: Head First (2010)


I discovered Goldfrapp in 2005 on, of all places, what used to be 120 Minutes before it moved to MTV2 and changed its name to something I can't quite recall anymore (crack research team unavailable). The video was "Ooh La La," from their Supernature LP. I was pretty blown away by the seductive, mildly goofy pop bliss of the song, and by the 1970s afro featured by one of the sidemen in the video. Expecting further power pop madness in the obnoxiously wonderful vein of Slade or suchlike, I listened to the album and instead discovered eclectic modern dance music, like Eurythmics reimagined as something altogether more exotic.

Subsequently I acquired -- and dug equally -- the prior record, Black Cherry. (I haven't yet given my undivided attention to their debut, Felt Mountain.) Unfortunately, while I've spoken to a few people who adore it, I was left cold by the 2008 followup Seventh Tree, a rather bizarre hybrid of ambient and '70s British folk-rock. The only song I really liked wasn't even actually on the record; it was a remix of the track "Happiness." I remember thinking that Goldfrapp's fear of pure dance music worried me a bit, because that's a step on the path to some hardcore pretension. I'm sad to report that now, Goldfrapp has put out their most no-holds-barred dance pop album to date, and although I'm finding it an improvement on Seventh Tree, I'm still disappointed and I can't say I particularly like where this group is headed. Goldfrapp has journeyed back not to the '80s of Yaz and the Cure but to the '80s of Olivia Newton-John and Xanadu... you know, the shit we never really liked that much to begin with. Fat synths, plunky drum machines, Stacey Q gloss, big arid soundscapes of cruel days and crueller nights, straight from a 1986 nightclub to the Muzak machine at the 2010 neighborhood K-Mart.

The problems are apparent on the very first tune, "Rocket," which is propulsive and sexy ("I've got a rocket / You're goin' on it") and hook-filled but also begins shortly to slide into the slack-jawed boredom of adult contemporary pop. It's one thing to detect a cunning sense of fashion somewhere deep in those generic grooves (see Pet Shop Boys' Behavior), but placing them up as something specifically to care about and be nostalgic for, I just don't relate. I never liked Berlin and I still don't like Berlin, and this is a Berlin record. The title track and "Dreaming," for instance, are the sort of thing that would render me very likely to change the dial during a 4:00am drive with Jammin' 99.9 FM on.

Head First continues in precisely this regard: eminently listenable, even enjoyable in its infectious visitations From Beyond the Grave of various Madonna and Bananarama hooks, but periodically -- and, it seems, deliberately -- lazy and boring. At least Seventh Tree was creative; this is just a step or two above a freaking Garbage album, and Alison Goldfrapp's presence can hardly compare to someone who fakes this shit as well as Shirley Manson. Posturing has always been a part of Goldfrapp's formula, but it's never been the point until now. The one unqualified success is the shimmery "Believer," strong and reverent but not quite backward-looking dance music that should have been the model for the rest of the LP. Among the rest, even the best songs are surprisingly derivative, and even if that's the whole idea, I find it tiresome. "I Wanna Life" is a perfect example: it feels great running down your throat, to use the most disgusting analogy I can think of, but not only do I find myself enjoying it strictly because it reminds me of some of my favorite hits of twenty years ago, I quickly realize that those hits actually had far more personality and were simply better than what Goldfrapp is tossing around here. Adding insult to injury: they close a nine-track album with another of the ambient annoyances that they've occasionally dropped before, the inconsequential "Voicething."

Personality is what's missing here for me, really. And yet again, what I don't understand is that the absence of it and the slide into MOR seem purposeful, even like a statement. Please tell me boring music imitating hits of the past isn't about to become stylish (though Goldfrapp are neither the first or the worst offenders in this regard in the current indie-rock world). I don't mean to rag on Goldfrapp here... with two mediocre records in a row, I'm just starting to think their direction is one I can't really follow. But if you are in the mood for a total nostalgia trip, by all means, take this one. You can listen to "Rocket" (included because it's a good representation, and rather catchy) and "Believer" (included because I like it a lot) right here, and I think they'll give you a good idea of whether you'll want to seek out the whole shebang. I don't mean to let my disappointment color everything here. If you need a good party record, you could easily do far worse. But be careful; these grooves do relent and reveal the pillowy mush underneath. It's true almost any of these songs would blend in perfectly between your favorite Wang Chung and Haircut 100 singles. I just question whether that accomplishment is the best use of Goldfrapp's ample talents.

I understand there's a really good remix of "Rocket" floating around. Maybe the pattern will repeat itself?

[Download links to "Rocket" and "Believer" removed because of a copyright claim from Mute Records. Soz. You can probably listen to them at Lala.]

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