Tricky feat. Alison Goldfrapp – Pumpkin (from Maxinquaye, 4th & Broadway album, 1995)

Back in the day, Alison Goldfrapp could occasionally be found adding her vocals to all sorts of tracks, the most prominent of which tended to be by Orbital and where, for no discernible reason, she went under the name ‘Auntie’. One of my favourite pre-Goldfrapp Alison Goldfrapp collaborations is this track with Massive Attack alumnus Tricky. I can’t fathom a word she’s saying since it has that jazzy wordless style that Orbital liked to deploy as a textural component of their tracks, but which is here presented as a foreground to this sluggish trip-hop piece. Her strange, Shirley Bassey-esque vocal is the perfect foil to a delivery from Tricky that rasps with a stoner’s ramblings. In the background, the samples run from folksy ethereality (something Goldfrapp would investigate years later with Seventh Tree) and a scratchy grunge passage not dissimilar to Butch Vig’s mix of Depeche Mode’s ‘In Your Room’. It might not be patch on other tracks on Maxinquaye, but it all adds to the quiet confidence exuded by Tricky on his first solo record.

Elsewhere on the album, occasional Mute producer and Rhythm King stalwart Mark Saunders adds his production nous to most of the tracks here, including the seminal, much-quoted ‘Brand New You’re Retro’.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Goldfrapp – Head First (Mute Records album, 2010)

  

mute records | lp/c/cd/i stumm320 | 22/03/2010

Head First finds the duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory abandoning not only the hippy etherialism of last album Seventh Tree but also the confrontational, over-sexed electronica – in the vein of, say, Peaches and Client – in favour of a pure pop sound. At first you’d think that this is intended to permit Goldfrapp to drop neatly into the current trend for female-fronted synth pop acts a la La Roux, Little Boots, who are intent on sweeping up the vast electronica vistas of the Eighties and claiming them as their own; but this is released on Mute, which has been producing quality, credible and enduring electronic music since before the Eighties were even born. Specifically, I’d suggest the influence of Vince Clarke during his late Eighties analogue renaissance would be a principal marker for the noises offered up on Head First.

This is synth pop at its shimmering, shiniest best. I’ve not listened to an electronic pop record for many years (probably since Erasure‘s last) that’s had me so captivated from the opening seconds. In Head First‘s case, that opener is the sublime first single ‘Rocket’ and is quickly followed by ‘Believer’, which starts with minimal pulsing beats before snapping into a huge sing-along chorus the likes of which Goldfrapp seem set on nurturing across most of Head First.

The second single, ‘Alive’ is a ballsy, disco-y track (in the vein of, say, Stock Aitken and Waterman’s take on the genre with Big Fun perhaps) which neatly encapsulates the vibe of Scissor Sisters. ‘Dreaming’ is probably my personal favourite song here – beginning with pulsing synths and breathy words that I can barely decipher, it’s the pleasantly uplifting chorus which provides the core emotional hook of the track. Title track ‘Head First’ sounded to me like an Abba cover with its simple piano lines and grandeur-filled bridge, and I wasn’t surprised to see journalists reviewing the album citing the same similarity. It’s a beautiful love song that the Andersson-Ulvaeus could feasibly claim as being descended from one of their own.

‘Hunt’ is less pop and more like something that the Goldfrapp / Gregory duo may have delivered up on Felt Mountain. The electronics sound submerged and minimal and Goldfrapp’s vocal reminds of how broad her sonic range can be. ‘Hunt’ shares some similarities with the only dip across the whole album, closing track ‘Voice Thing’, which, as its name suggests features Goldfrapp’s voice (wordlessly singing as she did on the Orbital records from years gone by) as a textural instrument. It’s clever, certainly, but a bit low-key compared to the rest of the album. ‘Shiny And Warm’ – a fast-paced and fairly minimal piece – is a song I’m not especially keen on, but it’s growing on me gradually. ‘I Wanna Life’, however, with a few more Abba overtones and a massive dose of Fame-esque optimistic cheeriness is much better.

Overall, this is a brilliant album, setting the duo off on an exciting new course. A couple of below par tracks aside, this really is essential listening for anyone looking for authentic electronic pop music from this consistently inventive pairing.

A cassette version of Head First was released by Mute for Record Store Day 2010.

lp/c/cd/i:
1. Rocket
2. Believer
3. Alive
4. Dreaming
5. Head First
6. Hunt
7. Shiny And Warm
8. I Wanna Life
9. Voicething

First posted 2010; re-edited 2015

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Goldfrapp – Tales Of Us (Mute Records album, 2013)

Goldfrapp 'Tales Of Us' LP artwork

mute artists | lp+cd/cd/dl/box stumm356 | 09/09/2013

Apparently neither Alison Goldfrapp nor Will Gregory were happy with Head First, their 2010 ballsy, largesse-filled electronic disco album. Tales Of Us is, compared to that record, a much more subtle affair, closer in hue and texture to Felt Mountain‘s glacial soundscapes or Seventh Tree‘s naturalist folk leanings.

Subtle is the operative word here. Throughout Tales Of Us there’s an impression of much larger songs, great, strident moments even, but with few exceptions everything feels like it’s been rubbed away, leaving just an ethereal impression of what might have been there before. Guitars are strummed gently, sounds quietly murmur in the background fleetingly and Alison’s voice is delivered as little more than a ruminative whisper throughout most Tales Of Us. I’ve always found it difficult to decipher what she is singing about, and that’s even more of a challenge here; short of the word ‘caribou‘ on ‘Ulla’ which stands out almost preposterously on ‘Ulla’, I really struggle to crack the quiet musings across Tales Of Us.

Tales Of Us is presented as a series of ten character studies, each one a story about, or delivered by, the person named in the track’s title, making for – at least on paper – a personality crisis of multiple imagined identities, while the list of names might be the register of a private school classroom in a posh part of West London. As above, I can’t really make out anything in particular from the lyrics I can hear, but suffice to say the resultant theme is one of mournful serenity. That theme is evoked most prominently by the use of string arrangements, which I’m sure will get described as ‘lush orchestrations’; combined with the gentle guitar chords Tales Of Us runs the risk of sounding a little bit like it should be filed under the easy listening section (‘Drew’ even seems to remind me of ‘Strangers In The Night’ at one point).

Aside from the unassailable, ephemeral beauty of ‘Annabel’ or the ‘Blue Room’ dub pulse of ‘Thea’, taken as a whole I do find Tales Of Us a little safe. That these songs are pretty, delicate things is without question, but it just doesn’t feel terribly new. ‘Stranger’, for example, sounds like it was lifted straight from Felt Mountain. It’s undoubtedly arresting, undeniably emotional, but just a bit unadventurous after the brash pop of Head First. For me it proved to be the perfect soundtrack to watching clouds moving imperceptibly from 30,000 feet up.

Tales Of Us was released in several formats including the by now obligatory overstuffed, expensive, probably handmade boxed edition. A video was made for ‘Drew’, which can be viewed below.

Track listing:

lp+cd/cd/dl:
1. Jo
2. Annabel
3. Drew
4. Ulla
5. Alvar
6. Thea
7. Simone
8. Stranger
9. Laurel
10. Clay

First published 2013; edited 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence