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Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageThough musical chameleons often rank among the most revered songwriters in the pop canon, earning accolades for their ability to retain their core aesthetic while reinventing themselves, not every artist can be David Bowie or Beck. Just as rare but no less daring are the artists who make a mid-career stylistic shift and decide to stay there for a few years, issuing a series of albums that make it seem as if the earlier incarnation of the band never existed at all. Consider the Bee Gees, an act that sold millions of albums in their previous life as a psych-pop band, becoming the pied pipers of a disco revolution. Or take Genesis’ turn toward a mainstream synth-pop after having earned their reputation as one of their era’s definitive prog rock bands. Though shorter in duration, Goldfrapp’s relocation from the inhibited ambient pop of 2000’s Felt Mountain to the preening dance glam anthems of their recent releases was no less jarring. Having found commercial success and carved out a niche with theatrical costumes and a neon light-studded stage show, it seemed likely that their shift was permanent, their fortune tied to their trajectory as one of the most stylish dance bands in the world. With Seventh Tree, they’ve made a reinvention no less audacious. The road to success has been long for Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, the duo who perform under the former’s last name. Though they formed in 1999 in England and were widely regarded as innovators for the electronic folk hybrid of their Mercury Prize-nominated Felt Mountain, it wasn’t until 2005 and their single “Ooh La La” that the rest of the world paid much attention to them. A few high-profile ad campaigns and a million sold records later, they’re in the position of consolidating their gains, and a finale for the work they started on 2003’s Black Cherry and 2005’s Supernature would seem to be the obvious choice. But just as they were perfecting a streetwise brand of over-the-top European decadence, they’ve retreated back to the English countryside where they’ve recorded all of their albums. This time, though, they’ve made an album that evokes their environment.

Appropriately, the first sound heard on Seventh Tree is an acoustic guitar, an instrument neither Goldfrapp nor Gregory plays and one that stands in stark contrast to the electronic textures of the majority of their work. The swagger of those recent releases is gone, and that acoustic guitar is soon wrapped in a crystalline synth pattern, Goldfrapp’s swooning and sighing vocals sounding timid as the textures form a deeply atmospheric backdrop. As the album was titled from a dream that Goldfrapp had about being in a forest where a tree had the number seven on it, it fittingly has both a dreamlike and pastoral feel, with the surreal fantasy of “Little Bird” creaking like a British child ballad wrapped in electronic gauze, and the dark lullaby in the gorgeous “Eat Yourself” sounding like a lost Appalachian folk song. But despite the acoustic guitars, strings and harps, this is still very much an electronic album, as those other elements are simply seasoning for the expansive synthesizers that carry most of the textural girth. Those acoustic instruments are often the first you hear, but by the end of each track they’re usually gone, slowly buried in the arrangement until you don’t even realize that the track has become overgrown with synthesizers.

Of course, there is no shame in using synthesizers, even for an album that’s main selling point is its intimate and homespun nature, and Goldfrapp and Gregory are masters at creating interesting collisions of textures and tones. The problem with Seventh Tree is just how tame those collisions sound this time around. “Road to Somewhere” is as bland as its title, with harpsichord synth tones and canned drum beats carrying Goldfrapp’s serene purr, her musings on watching clouds and listening to the radio matching the middle-of-the-road gloss of the arrangement. “Join our group and you’ll find harmony and peace of mind/We’re here to welcome you” she coos innocently on “Happiness,” a piano pop song with a surprisingly joyous bounce. But what at first seem like ominous promises from a would-be cult turn out to be nothing more than harmless musings, as the song appears to harbor no subversive edge below the glossy veneer, only longing for “love, real love.” Similarly drab is “Some People,” with a saccharine piano hook overlaid with vague affirmations such as “you know it/you owe it to yourself” and “what you thought was lost was just mislaid.” Anyone who can figure out what the “it” is referring to is a better mind reader than I.

By the final third of the album, the bucolic concept is abandoned altogether, with the sing-songy adult contemporary pop of “A&E” and the funky bass line and disco strings of “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” offering a reminder of the band’s sexier dance-pop. But where those albums had the benefit of being constructed on top of a template the band had put their own stamp upon, these are songs built from formula. There’s no worse offender than “Caravan Girl,” a sing-along piano ditty with a pulsing chorus where the song evolves from a simple piano hook into washes of synthesizers, tidy drums and multi-layered vocals, with everything falling out on the bridge and finishing up with everything piling back on for the outro. For songwriters who have shown so much imagination in the past, the adoption of such pop clichés is disappointing.

All in all, you have to admire Goldfrapp’s willingness to disregard commercial concerns and create the album they wanted to make, but Seventh Tree is simply a listless and unimaginative affair. When they first played with these concepts and textures on Felt Mountain they did so with an engrossing fragility, as if every chord change might send the song spinning off into the ether. Having become confident tunesmiths, they now write songs that have no otherworldly longing in them, no mystery hiding under the occasional psychedelic flourish and backmasked synth loop. One can see flashes of what the album could have been in the playfully metaphorical “Little Bird” and the haunted “Eat Yourself,” but it seems the duo just wasn’t ready to follow their intuition to its logical conclusion. Instead, one gets the impression that they just weren’t totally committed to their creative makeover, resulting in an album that shows the risk in stylistic restlessness.

Produced by the band and renowned studio auteur Flood, the album sounds magnificent, with everything balanced and no texture out of place. The acoustic guitars sound rich and tangible, the synths sound atmospheric and dense, and the vocals are gorgeously layered. That said, the album also sounds stiff and overly careful, with little emotion or feeling bleeding through the exacting performances or neatly coiffed arrangements. As such, it’s the perfect album for those who only want ethereal ear candy, but listeners who want to get their hands (or ears) dirty will have to look elsewhere. No doubt, there are enough small touches and intricacies in the mix that those with high-end equipment will be able to spend hours teasing apart the various constituent elements, but the songs simply aren’t interesting enough to invite such scrutiny.

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