April 13, 2006

Pushing Her Boundaries

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The UK release of Supernature, the third album by English duo Goldfrapp, was released last fall amidst a flurry of speculation and anticipation. Singer / performer / reigning queen of glam Alison Goldfrapp began her career with collaborations with trip-hop musician Tricky (she guest sings on “Pumpkin” from his 1995 debut album Maxinquaye) and electronic duo Orbital. Felt Mountain, Goldfrapp’s 2000 debut album, a gorgeous, decadent swath of synth and delicately lush orchestration, was received with nearly unanimous praise. However, their 2003 sophomore album Black Cherry saw Goldfrapp adopt a darker electroclash sound.

As Goldfrapp appropriated the exaggerated syncopation and swing-and-stutter rhythm of schaffle (a sub-sub-genre of minimal techno largely associated with Cologne-based Kompakt Records), building upon the glam posturing of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2” as well as the proto-schaffle 80s stomp of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” Goldfrapp became a popular target for criticism concerning authenticity and shameless trend mimicry (ILM, a hugely popular online music forum, featured a Goldfrapp thread describing them as everything from a “cynical self-marketed cliché” to “soul-sucking schtick”).

Furthermore, by bringing traces of underground music into the pop music spotlight, Goldfrapp opened doors for British mainstream acts to produce their own schaffel tracks (most notably, UK pop princess Rachel Stevens’ smash single “So Good,” produced by Brit hotshot Richard X, relies almost exclusively on the shimmying boogie of schaffel). Riding on that pop success, “Ooh La La,” Supernature’s first single, sticks to the same schaffel rhythms as Black Cherry’s massive club hit “Train.” Directly copying the chorus and bluesy riffing of T. Rex’s “Hot Love,” “Ooh La La” adds electro synths and vampy, breathy vocals to create a hyper self-conscious dance club anthem.

The most accessible of all their records, Supernature is a careful balance of Felt Mountain’s sweeping landscapes and the harsher, metallic-sounding Black Cherry. Alison Goldfrapp isn’t shy about giving credit to her huge variety of influences, and in a video clip on their website she cites a “real bag of influences,” from “glam rock, nature, nighttime, disco, [to] European electronic music.” Although the bubblegum catchiness is sub-par, “Fly Me Away” is pure, happy-go-lucky pop in the vein of The Go-Go’s. Similarly, “Slide In” unabashedly borrows from the same 80s template of fellow dance pixie Annie (although aesthetically different, Supernature has elicited more than one comparison to the pastiche approach of Anniemal).

Not surprisingly, Supernature’s most successful tracks are the up-tempo numbers like second single “Number 1” or the dirty synth sounds of “Lovely 2 C U.” Slower tracks like the ambient “Let It Take You” or the indulgent, cinematic “Time Out From The World” struggle to replay the success of the sophisticated vibe of Felt Mountain’s “Lovely Head” or Black Cherry’s “Hairy Trees.”

Yet, despite a similar chilled-out tempo in “You Never Know,” the psychedelic string flourishes and Alison’s dizzying operatic soprano is classic Goldfrapp in the vein of Felt Mountain’s sublime “Utopia.” Despite simplistic lyrics (“Round and round/ Here we go again we’re going/ Round and round” as a choice example), Alison’s mesmerizing singing and the delayed push-and-pull of the groove put the listener into a near trance-like state.

Berlin-based DJ Ronan once said that Goldfrapp’s only redeeming quality were their potential for remixes. Although this seems a bit reductive, Goldfrapp tracks have become serious fodder for major DJs, including no less than three remixes of “Ooh La La” (including a electro-house reworking by Benni Benassi, Tiefschwerz, and Phones) and multiple remixes of their third and most recent single, “Ride A White Horse,” by electronic powerhouses Ewan Pearson and Serge Santiago.

However, many of Supernature’s tracks stand proudly on their own, including the robotic execution of “Ride A White Horse.” Alison’s cold, disaffected vocals and Miss Kittin-esque machine-like presence are a slinky, hypnotic homage to ’70s-era glitter and excess (“I like dancing/ at the disco/ I want blisters/ You’re my leader”). The circus-top mayhem and Alison’s slightly behind the beat vocalizations on the overtly theatrical “Satin Chic” recall the aloof drawl of idol Deborah Harry. “Number 1,” Supernature’s second single, reintroduces Alison’s carnal identification with dogs and wolves (“I want it up and on/ I’m like a dog to get you”) and friendly pop melodies (and as Alison has cheekily stated on her website, “wolves represent freedom, a kind of wildness, strength, and sex … And they’re nice pets, too”).

“Shameless pop tart” or not, Alison Goldfrapp’s bewitching Goldilocks-meets-cyborg looks and goth-meets-dominatrix attire confidently entrenched her in the UK dance scene. By translating a strategic pastiche of influences to the dancefloor, Goldfrapp have recreated a sound that is a modern, glorious mish-mash of styles. Their poppiest, most accessible record to date, Supernature is a fun, loose affair. Without the sensual orchestration of Felt Mountain or menacing mechanics of Black Cherry, Supernature is straightforward pop with plenty of catchy electroclash flourishes. Let’s just hope Alison’s aloofness doesn’t rub off on us.

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz