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Listening to Music Again

March 28, 2010

By Juneau

March 28, 2010


Alison Goldfrapp, from Head First (Mute Records)


The last time I paid serious attention to popular music was in high school and college. Even then it was by osmosis – what I heard on Top 40, stuff my sister sent my way, tunes played at parties and clubs. Then came a life of travel, living overseas, work, family, and I became unplugged from the popular music scene. The unsubtle, aggressive boom of hip hop and plastic polish of the pop that I heard wafting from passing cars did not draw me in. I wasn’t going to wallow in nostalgia either — didn’t want to become one of those fogeys who go on about the old days. I subscribed in theory to the notion that the great thing about pop music is that it continually regenerates itself, but the new sounded not enough different from the old, simply not worth the effort.

But now I have drunk from the bottle of new music uncorked by Adam Lambert and found myself… soaked. Perhaps my soul was thirstier than I had realized, after parched decades of having my radio dial frozen to NPR stations. Nothing against NPR – I remain a loyal supporter and tune in daily, but it feels like eating my vegetables (again, nothing wrong with that; I’m a proponent of Michael Pollen’s rules of eating). Rarely did a broadcast make me giddy with the kind of inebriating pleasure that is being evoked by some of the music I am discovering now.

Then Adam Lambert showed up in my life and because he seems to have a discerning ear, I decided to check out the artists he mentioned. They are always interesting, and among them are treasures, artists who engage my emotions with texture, complexity and freshness that give me hope for the future of pop culture.

My current pop music trinity is comprised of Muse, Lady Gaga and Goldfrapp (and Adam, goes without saying!). Of these, Goldfrapp is the most compelling. Their just-released album, Head First, is looping on my iPod. A British duo formed in 1999 by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, this hemi-eponymous band has developed a sound that manages the feat of being both distinctive and astonishingly diverse. It is always recognizable but never predictable.

Alison Goldfrapp’s soprano is unlike any I’ve heard – breathy, delicate, birdlike, louche, earthy and otherworldly. She enuniciates her words as though they were in another language, sculpted yet slurred and incomprehensible like colors bleeding into one another in a Helen Frankenthaler painting. Her quicksilver voice slips and slides around the synth instrumentation and rhythmic gears of the songs.

Goldfrapp’s five CDs are exhilarating in their range. Containing a wealth of music shimmering with layers – lust, sensuality, intelligence, hope and irony – they are not going to be crammed into a box. Felt Mountain (2002) is a marvel of swirling, dreamy electronica, mystical, menacing and elegant. The track “Utopia” has to rank among the most seductive songs every devised. Black Cherry (2004) is full of fabulous, sinuous dance tunes like “Twist” and “Strict Machine”, and Supernature (2006) goes full-out nouveau glam, fresh, ecstatic and irresistible. Seventh Tree (2008) takes a breather with downtempo, earthy acoustic melodies, delicate, nature-infused sound poems, contemplative and troubled. “A&E” is a disarming masterpiece about attempted suicide.

Head First (2010), released last week, is an album that is simultaneously retro and futuristic. The CD cover shows Alison Goldfrapp’s face floating against a cerulean sky strewn with rose-gold cumulus clouds. Inside, she is depicted full length garbed in an astronaut’s jumpsuit – in bubblegum pink, her signature nimbus of blonde hair framing her enormous eyes. Hers is a face of porcelain beauty with a feline inscrutability and cunning. She strides forward atop satiny blue platform boots – no gravity here to worry about. She is a Power Puff girl for adults.

Head First is filled with driving disco beats and lush sonic beauty paired with lyrics of anomie and longing. The songs are stretched taut between life, love and the existential void. The album launches strongly with three buoyant disco anthems with rousing choruses, “Rocket”, “Believer” and “Alive”. A minor key intrudes with the spacey “Dreaming”, and then we arrive at the luminous “Head First” – a place of beauty and light, dreams and emptiness. The lyrics are full of holes, like her breathy voice – voids into which emotion floods. I may be projecting the shadows flitting across my psyche here, but this album’s narrative arc evokes for me the journey across the divide, the apex of the parabola of life, when your upward launch stalls out, there is a moment of being gravity free, before the descent.

A moment to express some indignation here. According to a recent Irish Independent article, “Obsessed with hyping the next hot young thing — ie, another female singer-songwriter with nice hair — BBC Radio One, Britain’s pre-eminent ‘yoof’ station, has declined to playlist Goldfrapp’s comeback single, Rocket. Frankly, it’s a bit of a slap in the face. Particularly when you consider the rumours that the BBC judged the duo too old for the station.” I am disgusted with the radio producers, and skeptical that young music listeners base their choices on the artists’ age over their talent. That might be true where talent is not on display, but when you have artists of such abundant skills, music should know no age boundaries. (I base my hypothesis on the sparse data of my teenage daughter and her friends, who absorb and enjoy music from every era of the past half century.)

Goldfrapp’s is the sexiest sound in modern popular music, especially because it isn’t in-your-face sex. It’s subtle, nuanced, many-layered, sensual, suggestive, seductive and frankly beautiful. The songs are exquisitely crafted, rubies and sapphires to the cubic zirconium of most pop Top 40.

* * *

Postscript: I won’t even go into Goldfrapp’s fabulous videos here (maybe in the future), save to say that I think they are among the most cutting-edge out there, so savagely twisted, whimsical, layered and cypherlike  – the fount from which all others, including the redoubtable Gaga, drink. A sampling is offered here for your exploration:

“Alive” – Adam tweeted about this one: Goldfrapp’s video for ALIVE is hilarious. CAMP so often goes over the general public’s head… so sad… video put a huge grin on my face

Update 10-10-10: Adam tweeted: Goldfrapp’s “Hairy Trees” Always relaxes me and transports me to another world. Listen to it on headphones and close your eyes. Got me poking around YouTube for new Goldfrapp vids and I came across this fabulous interview from 2006 about Supernature, which Adam has said is his favorite album, the one he’d take to a desert island. “Nature, disco and pagan nature stuff” – I see why Adam connects so much with them.

Juneau writes about neuroscience, physics and whatever else attracts her peripatetic attention. She is co-author with Xena of On the Meaning of Adam Lambert, and co-hostess of this Salon.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010 10:18 am


    Lovely review-it makes me want to run out and buy Goldfrapp’s albums. I think I am going to start with Supernature, though, because Adam has mentioned it so many times. Do you think that’s the best place to start, or is it just better to dive in Head First?

    Adam has got me listening to Gaga, Pink, the Kings of Leon, and many other artists. I am so grateful that he came into our lives and made us want to listen to new music. And old music.

    And speaking as a former NPR addict (I was grumpy when they played music on the weekends), I think this is a wonderful development. My children are grateful , too-they don’t have to listen to news in the car much anymore. A win-win.

    • March 29, 2010 9:50 pm

      I think Supernature is a great CD to start with. I think Head First would be the next most accessible, followed by Black Cherry. I think Felt Mountain is amazing, but it takes more time to get into it. It’s worth it though. I think Utopia is one of the all time great songs. And I adore Seventh Tree. Have fun! – J

  2. Sheba permalink
    March 29, 2010 6:11 pm

    Ok. So I did listen when Adam was raving about Muse and got their popular songs. They are great but I can’t listen to them over and over again like I do Adam’s songs. Same with Goldfrapp. They have a great sound but, again, I am not drawn to them like I do to Adam. It’s crazy but I am having a real hard Time listning to other music.
    Adam makes me feel happy. I am so excited after a long day to watch him and listen to him talk.
    No one can really match him.

  3. March 30, 2010 11:21 am

    I agree completely with you! I was a diehard classic rock fan, music from my high school and college days. I thought modern music was crap. But then came Adam. I don’t even need to say how much I love his music. (And him.) But through him, like you, I also discovered Goldfrapp who remind me of an edgier, hipper Captain and Tennille. And Muse. I love them. If it weren’t for Adam, I may not have listened to their music. Now I don’t turn off the Top 40 and put on my CD of Styx. As cliched as it sounds, he made me want to listen to music again.

  4. April 30, 2010 12:25 pm

    Wow. I feel the same about Goldfrapp – and for many of the same reasons. I had never heard of her/them until Adam started to talk about the new album etc. so I looked them up & got hooked. I found I already loved the track Rocket as it was on the radio here, but didn’t register who it was. I got my husband to pick up a copy of the Head first alubm, and when I played it he said ‘I so want to put this on my iPod’ (He’s also an Adam fan- well not as much as me of course lol) As soon as I heard the Goldfrapp stuff, I immediately tweeted that Adam had made me ‘want to listen to music again’ which of course I now see from many people every day. This beautiful man has become such a huge part of our lives. Did he just fall from the sky!

    There’s a fantastic fanvid of Adam on YouTube set to Goldfrapp’s ‘Beautiful’. I find it difficult to separate these in my head now! It’s called Adaluscious by ZeppelinAerosmithNY.

    Thank you Juneau for expressing what I believe so many of us feel.

  5. Easty permalink
    July 30, 2010 3:20 pm

    I know what all of you mean! Was a NPR fan for so long… but as soon as Adam hit the scene a year ago, sorry NPR but your energy is not what I am looking for right now! It’s the Adamization factor that has hit me big time. I am listening to Pink now – never was a fan of hers before – but I love how thoughtful her music is. Pandora Radio has really opened my eyes because if you plug in Adam Lambert, it will give you an array of songs that they feel (researched!) you will also like. Yeah, and Pink and Goldfrapp are among them. So great. Thank you, Adam, for this great awakening and thank you, Juneau, for this review.

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