Goldfrapp – Head First

Goldfrapp - Head First (2010)

Goldfrapp - Head First (2010)

I used to have Goldfrapp in  high regard following Felt Mountain, an album that could only be described as a breath-taking introspective of whatever haunted Alison Goldfrapp’s mind back in the days when it was released.  I was left a little bit disappointed with Black Cherry, as it departed completely from the sound and everything that represented Felt Mountain.

Supernature, while it featured a couple of great songs, wasn’t exactly the comeback I was expecting after all those years.  10 years later, however, while watching BBC’s Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, there she is again, performing in what seems to be a re-enactment of an 80s synth-pop song, which turned out to be Rocket.

The only surprising detail is that this is actually Goldfrapp’s latest album to date (yes, this sound comes from a record released just last year).  Completely immersed in her new electronic synth-pop attitude, some might think that this is her new gimmick, and to some extent it is.  The difference is that this is more than just a gimmick, this time there is some substance buried beneath layers and layers of hair spray and synthesizers.

Kudos to Alison Goldfrapp for reinventing herself (again), her ability to morph from what we were becoming used to after every new record is remarkable, and while just changing for the sake of doing it was not enough, she brought us some very interesting songs to enjoy for a while.  Right from the beginning we have Rocket, a song that already haunted my past, and still to this day I try to avoid due to its catchy nature.

I would like to stress the fact that being a catchy nature does not make Rocket something that should be avoided, is just that I took things to a little extreme point and now I suffer from an acute over-exposure to that song.  In moderated quantities it is actually a very enjoyable song.

Less catchy but with more substance, Head First truly deserves to be the song carrying the record’s name, being an incredibly sober song in the middle of this sea of gym-class-soundtrack songs.  Once you are done with Rocket this will be the song you will spend most of your time with.

Believer, Alive and I Wanna Life are okay if you are just in an easy-listening mood, although not too much to write home about these.  That’s probably my biggest complaint about this record, I already said that most of it feels like it was designed to be used as your new gym soundtrack, because it is great for that purpose (yes, countless hours at the gym with this proved it true), but it will feel completely out-of-place in almost any other situation.

The lack of memorable moments outside of the songs I already mentioned is what hurts this record the most.  This, as a whole, is nowhere near to be epic, and that is just so sad.  Those who have experienced how sublime Felt Mountain was, know the potential and incredible talent Goldfrapp has, too bad that we might never see a glimpse of that again.

Samantha James – Rise

Samantha James - Rise (2007)

Samantha James - Rise (2007)

When I found out that this was Samantha James’ first album, it was a bit of a shock, but also an affirmation that when someone is this committed to music, you can easily tell by the passion and effort that most of these songs have.

It was a bit of a shock because this is a professional record.  No rough edges, no fillers, everything seems to have a purpose.  And that unity, that vision to create this unified concept is what I liked the most.  Actually, if you think about it, that is one of the advantages that you get when you do compose your own songs, you get the chance to create a collection of songs sharing very similar characteristics.

This album has a particular emphasis on evoking a good vibe through rhythmic tunes, an almost latin feeling in some of the songs, without losing the notion that this is a pop album influenced by some electronic beats here and there.  Fortunately this does not become a non-stop festival from start to finish, as we are granted some more chilled songs in between, and the result is a very well-balanced yet charged album.

Exotic, lush and inciting tunes is something that Mrs. James does brilliantly.  Enchanted Life became one of my favorite songs almost from the beginning.  Her voice and the rhythm are just so well-balanced here, it shouts perfection all the way through.  I Found You is another good example.

If the exotic vibe is not your cup of tea, you can always rely on songs like Angel Love, Deep Surprise, Rain or even the incredibly smooth Right Now, this last one being a completely different category, belonging more into a trip hop record.  It is a tough decision to pick a favorite from these.

Being a helpless fan of the female vocalists genre, this is a definite must have in my book.  Not only for the incredible songwriting skills shown here, and also not only for the very high production values found here, but for the combination of both.  Great songs alone usually are lost if the means are not there to support them, and also production values applied into mediocre songs produce mediocre albums. 

This however, is one of those times when happily for us, both things were done the right way.  I still haven’t got the chance to listen to Subconscious, the latest album from Samantha James, but judging from what I know so far, I’m already looking forward to it.

Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase

Boards of Canada - The Campfire Headphase (2005)

Boards of Canada - The Campfire Headphase (2005)

Ambient music never felt so good.  What Boards of Canada did here is basically craft a set of tunes with an impressive and unobtrusive collection of nature sounds, and even though this description sounds like this would make for a perfect National Geographic documentary soundtrack, it is actually a lot more than that.

This is just not some random songs with a soundtrack of birds singing on top of it, it is an organic experience, a vivid reminiscence of a relaxing day out with nature.  What is even more impressive is that this manages to feel fresh all the way through, and then almost until the end, a dark and drone atmosphere covers it all, almost like staying out late, losing the notion of time and being caught by the night as it reclaims its territory when the day fades out.

Previous experiences with Boards of Canada records taught me what to expect from them, and this almost caught me off guard.  Right at the beginning Chromakey Dreamcoat surprises us with something completely new for a Boards of Canada record: guitars.  Fear not, though, because this is not the beginning of the transition for a more mainstream sound, but a welcome addition that serves to prove that the duo is not afraid to experiment with this kind of elements.

Another surprising variant from previous records is that I found some more structure, musically speaking, than say, Geogaddi or even Boc Maxima.  There’s still a steep curve of learning and adaptation here, but it does not feel that random.  It feels like songs are fitted together nicely, without abrupt switching between them, which makes for a smoother experience.

I already mentioned Chromakey Dreamcoat, which serves very well its purpose of introducing the pace and musical direction, followed by the superb Satellite Anthem Icarus.  Other songs you should pay attention to:  Dayvan Cowboy (featured also in the 2006’s Trans Canada Highway EP, hopefully I’ll review it some time in the future), Oscar See Through Red Eye, Hey Saturday Sun, Tears From the Compound Eye, just to name a few.  Give it some time and you will discover the ones you feel more comfortable with.

Boards of Canada, for those not familiar with their long and under the radar history, has never been this accessible before, and this is a record I’ve enjoyed a lot for the past couple of years.  Their records have always been surrounded by this underground halo, nearly unknown outside their loyal fan base, and maybe we can’t go as far as saying that this is a step in the opposite direction, but maybe just a hint that upcoming material will be just as good as this, or we can only hope, even better.

The Postmarks – Memoirs at the end of the world

The Postmarks - Memoirs at the end of the world (2009)

The Postmarks - Memoirs at the end of the world (2009)

I’m no expert regarding indie bands, but there is always something recurring when it comes to them: There is always a flaw.  Sometimes is an evident low quality in the recording process, a lack of skills, meaningless lyrics and the list goes on.  This of course creates a bias whenever I’m exposed to some new material from a band I’m not related.

Before I say anything more, let me explain how I got my hands on this record: I usually listen exclusively to my own collection of music for weeks, and eventually I will feel the need to add some new records, which means loading up SomaFM.  One evening not so long ago I came across an intriguing song, called Don’t know till you try, and long story short, this record was in my iPod ready to be fired up.

I was expecting to find the omnipresent flaw I was talking earlier, and being honest, it never showed up.  Instead I was left alone, guard-less, against a completely unexpected outcome.  What happened?  I was taken by surprise by a record that feels like it was just extracted from a time capsule that was buried in the late 60s.

This is not your typical record that relies completely on some gimmick, which in this case would be the whole 1960 atmosphere, because even though I’m too young to have been even alive by then (hell, even my parents were just teenagers back then), The Postmarks did a great job pulling this off and now we have a chance to taste what it was like.  You don’t have to be a fan of music from that frame of time to understand what makes it so good, you just have to put this on whatever you use to listen to your music, and right away the first track will bring you back some memories if you actually had the chance to be alive by then, or if you didn’t, don’t be surprised if your mind tries to recreate a memory to fill in the gap.

The lyrics aren’t breath-taking for the most part, but they don’t come up short either.  I’m suspecting that music that sounds and feels well executed just like this can get away with that, or at least I want to believe that.  I couldn’t help feeling that songs like My lucky charm or Go jetsetter are just too soft, I blame the well done vocal work for that.  I liked the fact that the whole set of songs are too much alike, without becoming monotonous, and still with enough variants to make the ride enjoyable from start to end.

The brighter note, however, is that it was not until I reached the end of the record that I discovered something fascinating.  Halfway through The girl from Algenib I realized that what was in front of me was the ultimate déjà-vu experience.  Years of watching japanese cartoons in the mid 80s taught me that feeling of living sublime experiences through visuals and music, and this song specifically brought that back to my mind because it is a carbon copy of the music I remember being exposed as a kid.

In the end it was just too much to handle, and 20 years later a song describing the troubled life of a girl from a star in the Pegasus constellation had the same effect as spending a saturday afternoon watching clips of old childhood memories on YouTube.

Ivy – Long Distance

Ivy - Long DIstance (2000)

Ivy - Long Distance (2000)

Indie pop acts usually are not my cup of tea, and even though I have a thing for female vocalist bands and trip hop influenced tunes, this album was not something of particular interest for me.

My opinion about this was biased towards the fact that when you only know about one particular song in an album, you have the feeling that the rest of it will feature mostly bland fillers.  Oh boy, I was so wrong about this, but it was not until months later that for some reason I don’t remember anymore, I decided to figure out what this was all about.

No, it was not a coincidence, probably my gut knew something I didn’t.  But the first time I went through the whole 14 songs I thought nothing special about it, after all this is a 10-year-old record collecting dust in my collection, right? Some time later I went through it again, and although it still felt new and unknown to me, a couple of chorus and hooks started to gain my attention.

Looking back I can’t remember how many times I went through this album, probably 25 to 40 over a period of one year, and something I noticed was that once I got into it, I no longer had the opinion that this was a one song album.  No sir, this is truly a collection of hidden gems just waiting there to be discovered.  Of course, I’m not trying to give you the false impression that this is the greatest album ever made that no one knew about, but rather than that, this is one of those lucky findings in a sea of indie bands.

You might remember Edge of the ocean as the most recognizable track from this album (it was featured in TV shows and some movies after all), and it would be a mistake to judge this album solely based on it, or hope that the entire set of songs are alike.  I found that songs like Undertow, Lucy doesn’t love you, and Blame it on yourself all share a very similar framework around them, and are very enjoyable actually if you are in an easy listening mood.

There are, however, songs that sends this album into a completely different category, and that is what caught my attention.  Edge of the ocean is just the tip of the iceberg, fast forward to songs like I think of you and Hideaway and you are in your way to develop an addiction to the trip hop sound that Dominique Durand’s distinctive voice can pull off.

Fortunately the songs are distributed in an appropriate way, so you will not be left with the impression that you are listening to two different bands in the same album, or two albums from the same band.  The easy listening mood blends in with the more sensuous trip hop side of this album in an unobtrusive manner.

In the end, however, this will always be the underdog album that was never meant to be.  It was released in 2000 and although it is still a very enjoyable album to put in the background while you do something else, its chance to become something more has been long gone.

All that is left is to accept it for what it is, and now that I think about it, maybe that is the way it was meant to be…