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PJ Harvey’s deserving Mercury triumph

PJ Harvey has garnered an extraordinary amount of press attention and critical acclaim for her eighth LP, Let England Shake – most recently she has been awarded the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for a second time. Such has been the scale of Harvey’s achievement that the widespread coverage is bound to attract some new curious fans to the fold. So what makes Let England Shake so good, and is it representative of Harvey’s work as a whole?

The answer to the latter question is both yes and no. Each new LP Harvey delivers is different in some way, a progression from the work before – in other words, taking what she’s learned from one project and refashioning it into something new on the next. The raw, lo-fi blues rock of her 1992 debut Dry was succeeded by 1993’s even more raw, blistering punk-blues Rid of Me. Two years later, Harvey heightened the blues elements but in a much more sonically sophisticated, diverse framework on 1995’s To Bring You My Love before taking the hint of burbling electronics and uneasy effects to a new level on 1998’s Is This Desire?.

Keen to move away from such a dark sound, Harvey moved into a more straightforward rock territory on the Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), which shared the power of her earlier records but married them to more refined melodies. Faced with how to follow such a commercial and critical high, Harvey deconstructed and turned in a self-produced, largely self-played “scrapbook” type of record on the scratchy lo-fi rock of Uh Huh Her (2004), which also introduced a more folk-inspired element to her work.

As strong as it may have been, Uh Huh Her signalled something of a creative dead-end for Harvey; her next move was inspired. Abandoning her trusty guitar, she composed on piano for the first time – some 15 years into her career – and the result was the spectral, spooky White Chalk, her most intimate record. Ever since, Harvey has been riding a creative wave and seems to be in the midst of a real purple patch. Her recent collaboration album with John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By, brought back a scratchy blues-folk quality and Let England Shake seems to take some cues from there.

The biggest change is in the lyrical style; before, Harvey often used intriguing imagery, often visceral and sometimes Biblical, but since White Chalk there has definitely been a sense of the words having paramount importance. This is lyrically one of her strongest albums, cohesive and full of imagery of war and conflict. Rather than being a straightforward political album, Harvey imagines herself as a “war song correspondent,” delivering news from the front lines. Thus, there’s no political bias, more observations of war’s effects on humankind in general. Harvey has said that she read widely, from the poetry of Harold Pinter and TS Eliot to contemporary eyewitness accounts from people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while the lyrics rarely go into specifics, there’s definitely the sense that Harvey has done her research and approaches such thorny topics with confidence and without a preachy tone.

The main reason the evocative lyrics have such resonance is in the way Harvey marries them to some of her most upbeat melodies and shimmering production. Largely eschewing the piano of White Chalk in favour of walls of guitars and, significantly, the autoharp, the instrumentation gives the album a unique, vaguely folk-tinged feel that feels both timeless and extremely fresh all at once. The music is full of vitality and energy and movement, and Harvey is backed by a sterling band that includes long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey on a variety of instruments and drummer Jean-Marc Butty, recording the album together over a five-week period in a Dorset church in the spring of 2010. The percussion is one of the most impressive parts of the album; it’s very rarely straightforward drum beats – Butty is incredibly inventive in how he provides the underpinning for these songs, which often feel very light and floaty thanks to the effects on the guitars (in prior work, Harvey’s guitar playing has mostly been very raw, very bluesy, very powerful; here it’s almost weightless, reminiscent of Cocteau Twins, and it’s a unique new flavour.)

Vocally too, she’s developing new phrasing techniques. The characterless voice she employed on White Chalk, pitched higher, is retained but has a much throatier quality; it’s still recognisably PJ Harvey singing, but a fresh new approach (and listen to the piercingly high soprano notes she reaches on “On Battleship Hill.”) Melodically, many songs have a very simple, sing-song quality that communicates the lyrics effectively and, especially when Harvey is singing some quite horrific lyrics, only adds to the impact. Thus, the devastating “Hanging in the Wire” is musically one of the softest and most beautiful songs in her catalogue, while “Let England Shake” has an almost jangly, hypnotic, skeletal Tom Waits-style autoharp/xylophone arrangement. “England” features a Kurdish folk song sample but the exoticism is in the melody alone, for the song is largely delivered solo on acoustic guitar, while “Written on the Forehead” is the album’s most shimmering number and features a surprising but wonderfully effective reggae sample.

Other highlights include the galloping urgency of “The Glorious Land,” which features dissonant bugle calls, the haunting, solemn “All and Everyone,” which features an inspired dirge-like coda that features some mournful saxophone, and the fast-rocking “Bitter Branches.” Lead single “The Words That Maketh Murder” features one of the album’s catchiest melodies and autoharp parts, also making use of handclaps and male vocals, while the immediately accessible “The Last Living Rose” ranks among Harvey’s most beautiful, simple songs. “The Colour of the Earth” ends the album on a communal, sing-song, anthemic tone.

Let England Shake is a landmark work. It’s not far and away Harvey’s best; she’s incredibly consistent and each of her records brings something exciting to the table, but Let England Shake has a cohesion and assurance – and originality – that really marks it out as something special. On first listen, some of the more unusual songs (such as “England” and the dissonant bugle calls in “The Glorious Land”) may be slightly off-putting, but repeated listening reveals this to be one of Harvey’s strongest and most unusual but beautiful albums. It slots nicely within her catalogue yet simultaneously feels like a real bold new step, and it is exciting to ponder quite where she will go next.

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Laura Nyro’s “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” at 40

November 25, 2010 – the 40th anniversary of the release of Laura Nyro’s fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Recorded in New York City in the spring of 1970, the album was released that November and soon rose to #51 on the American Billboard album chart. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a holiday-themed record; it’s not, and her label bosses did try to explain that including “Christmas” in the title would be misleading, but Nyro, who had bowed to the wishes of her “superiors” during her early recording sessions in 1966, was not going to let the same thing happen and remained resolute.

 

 

Nyro completed her “holy trinity” of albums with the release of Christmas and the Beads of Sweat; it seemed to complete an artistic arc that she had begun with 1968’s cosmopolitan Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and continued on 1969’s dramatic, noir New York Tendaberry; indeed, it was Nyro’s last album of new material for more than five years.

Somewhat strangely, Christmas ranks as the most neglected album of Nyro’s early career – more so, even, than 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle, the acclaimed collection of soul and R&B covers recorded in Philadelphia with Gamble and Huff on production duties and vocal trio Labelle on harmonies. It is also seen by some as the weak link of the trilogy of deeply intense, original works Nyro fashioned at the peak of her creativity in her early twenties. In reality, there is no such ‘weak link’ – Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is home to several extraordinary Nyro originals. But, granted, it may not possess quite the breathtaking originality of Eli or Tendaberry.

The reason for this is perhaps because it does not really bring many new elements to the table – by now, Nyro’s trademarks, such as her tempo and rhythmic changes, her distinctive piano lines, her multi-octave vocal swoops, had become familiar. That doesn’t mean they somehow worsened or became tiresome, but there is not the monumental leap between predecessor New York Tendaberry and Christmas that there was between 1967 debut More Than A New Discovery and Eli, and then between Eli and Tendaberry.

Instead, Christmas can perhaps be described as an amalgam of Eli and Tendaberry in that it is divided between joyous, uplifting soulful pop songs and more expansive, experimental, piano-driven epics. Christmas has its own distinctive flavour in that it is more exotic and Oriental-sounding than its predecessors; there are subtle Latin inflections in the rhythms and arrangement of “Blackpatch,” and of course the Oriental arrangement and melodic structure of “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp” and aquatic harp lines in “Map to the Treasure.” This softer and more exotic sound would resurface on 1976’s Smile; if there is a new element added to Nyro’s sound on this album, then this is it – an Oriental bent, a gospel mellowness. It’s a subtle addition but definitely gives the record its own distinct sound.

The original album was split with two bands playing on the different sides. This was not pre-arranged but, as producers Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin explained, just happened that way. The first side features the accompaniment of the Swampers band from Muscle Shoals, lending the songs an easygoing feel, while the second side features an array of musicians including Duane Allman on electric guitar on “Beads of Sweat” and Alice Coltrane on harp. As a result, the album as a whole is perhaps not as unified as Eli or Tendaberry, and maybe suffers for that reason, but the individual songs are first-rate. (And the semi-conceptual ‘four seasons’ arc to Side B is a four-song wonder.)

“Brown Earth” is a gloriously uplifting gospel-soul number that doesn’t really sound like any other Laura Nyro original; it rises from almost whispered verses to a rousing hook of “white dove’s gonna come today / oh what a morning / it feels so good / oh what a morning / of brotherhood,” with a multi-tracked choir of soulful, impassioned Nyros singing on the “white dove” and “oh what a morning” lines. If anything, the gospel soul sound is almost a precursor to her next project, the covers album Gonna Take a Miracle. In any case, it’s a glorious, effective opener, with beautifully conventional yet effective piano lines.

The following “When I Was A Freeport and You Were the Main Drag” is more upbeat and features the return of Nyro’s familiar syncopated piano lines; it also displays her oft-missed sense of humour. An album like New York Tendaberry was more intent on dramatics and theatrics than humour, so “Freeport” is a welcome change of tone for Nyro; it’s also a bolder, sassier, feistier Nyro on this song than the “delicate romantic” some seem to perceive her to be. The song is incredibly melodic and, in its effervescent abandon, catchy as hell and among her best in this up-tempo, jaunty category, featuring such jewel lines as “I got a lot of patience baby / that’s a lot of patience to lose.”

The laidback, easygoing feel continues into the Latin-accented “Blackpatch,” a joyous mid-tempo snapshot of a day in the life of a city woman, maybe Nyro herself. Only Nyro could make such everyday events as sending out party invitations and hanging out the washing sound beautiful and energised, but she ends the song with a knowing lyric, “womanchild on a sidestreet / flashing in blackpatch / lipstick on her reefer / waiting for a match.” Nyro’s poetry is incredibly evocative and unique, but the words fit remarkably into ultra-catchy pop melodies, which is one of her finest skills. “Blackpatch” boasts one of the most effortless and sophisticated pop-soul melodies on the album, and its arrangement, incorporating horns and congas, is tasteful and imaginative.

The tone of the album changes drastically on the six-minute piano epic “Been on a Train,” Nyro’s second “train” song about hard drugs, following from “Poverty Train,” which she debuted at June 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. “Been on a Train” is looser than its predecessor, moodier and more intense. Nyro’s detached vocal delivery on the verses is chilling, while her piano lines are much simpler than normal, putting the spotlight onto her lyrics. The song unexpectedly but dramatically changes gears when Nyro’s voice rises to a gospel soar – “you got more tracks on you baby, than the tracks of this train” – before she screams out, “No! No! Damn you mister!” in her inimitable theatrical New York Tendaberry style, before leaping into a feverish tempo change, only to settle back into the moodiness of the verses again. Its placement amid the uplifting, soulful pop songs of side one is all the more effective and for that reason, “Been on a Train” is a standout. But as a song in its own right, it remains peerlessly effective (and four decades on, harrowing and hard-hitting) as a portrait of a heroin addict, possibly influenced by the death of Nyro’s cousin from a heroin overdose in October 1969.

The mood switches back from the darkness and despair of “Been on a Train” to a sense of easygoing, romantic uplift for “Up on the Roof” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King – at that time, the very first cover version Nyro had recorded. It fits right into the mood, though, and it’s not a stretch to think of it as a Nyro original. More conventional, perhaps, but melodically it has something in common with Nyro originals. It’s a great performance with a beautiful arrangement, and was selected as the album’s single in the autumn of 1970. Ironically, this cover version became Nyro’s biggest hit in her own right, Nyro being famed as a successful songwriter for other artists.

Side two is more expansive and exotic. It begins with the superb “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp,” one of Nyro’s finest songs. It is musically sophisticated, with a beautiful Oriental-inspired arrangement and one of Nyro’s most haunting and evocative piano melodies. Her vocal performance is also top-notch, as are the poetic lyrics, which detail a “sleepy woman by the window / dreaming in the morning air / of the man who takes her sweetness / by a Chinese lamp upstairs.” It’s gorgeous, romantic, and sensual, and an album highlight. It then segues into an eight-minute epic, “Map to the Treasure,” which opens with Alice Coltrane’s watery, exotic harp, which resurfaces at some points throughout the song. “Map to the Treasure” is a mood piece, really, with wispy verses that give way to an extended and memorable piano solo that gradually increases in speed and intensity, before Nyro comes back with the vocal hook, “in the treasure of love,” only to fade away again. It is sensual, as with “Chinese Lamp,” but sexual too (“for you I bear down / soft and burning”), and the music mirrors the excitement of sex.

“Beads of Sweat” is next; it starts in much the same way as “Map to the Treasure,” with a cooing Nyro intoning over a barely-there piano, “cold jade wind…” but then surges into the most driving, hard-rocking song Nyro ever recorded. Its closest relative is “Eli’s Comin’,” which shares much of the same lyrical conceit and same musical urgency, but “Beads of Sweat,” featuring Duane Allman on guitar, is probably harder-rocking and just as intense. It’s an unexpected change of pace for Nyro but is another strong composition with several hooks. It has a kind of gospel fervour that marks it out as one of Nyro’s most inspired and original efforts.

The album closes with another epic, the seven-minute “Christmas In My Soul,” a poem Nyro set to music. It is unfortunate that Nyro ended the album on a disappointingly earnest note; it is the first real place where Nyro explores political matters – she sings of “the sins of politics, the politics of sin” – and her specific detailing of the Chicago Seven and “Black Panther brothers” dates the song and forces it into a corner, so to speak. It has little in common with the evocative, imaginative, successful poetic lyrics Nyro was writing in other songs at the time. Musically, too, it is rather overbearing, with some misplaced bells and military drums overstating the point. The melody is not one of Nyro’s most illuminating, and her vocal is pitched firmly in the upper register throughout, which makes the song a little hard work. It retains a sense of drama and ambition that is pleasing to see, but other songs on the album are also dramatic and ambitious – “Been on a Train” and “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp”/”Map to the Treasure,” for instance – but are also wholly successful. “Christmas In My Soul” is a suitably epic end to the album, but it’s actually one of the weaker and less successful songs here.

Laura Nyro probably did not intend to “retire” from the music business after this album. In concerts in 1970-72, she was performing some new songs that had not yet been recorded – “I Am the Blues,” “American Dove,” “Children of the Junks,” “Mother Earth” – that suggest she was still thinking of making a record of new songs. Instead, she did a record of oldies in 1971 before marrying and leaving the spotlight for four years. But in truth, the extraordinary twin peaks of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry represent a level of intense creativity that probably left Nyro understandably exhausted. At 22, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is probably the sound of a woman relaxing just a little, cooling off after two or three years of intense, passionate music. That’s not to say that Christmas does not fit that category – you would be hard-pressed to find songs as intense or passionate as “Been on a Train,” “Map to the Treasure,” or “Beads of Sweat” – but there is a certain softening in the sound here that suggests Nyro’s artistry was subtly changing. Indeed, “Christmas In My Soul” looks outward for largely the first time, and when Nyro returned in 1976, she was writing more about political and social concerns as well as writing about her personal life. So, in a sense, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat represents a crucial turning point in Laura Nyro’s music – it closes the chapter on her first period of original songs (and what a purple patch it was), and at the same time hints at her artistic evolution to come. As an album in its own right, it deserves more praise as being one of Nyro’s finest and most enduring efforts and is a worthy final act of an extraordinary trilogy. And 40 years later, it still shines bright.

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2010 just got hotter: Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz

This frankly marvellous treat for the ears has thrown my mental list of the Best Albums Of 2010 into disarray. I am fast falling in love with Sufjan Stevens’  The Age of Adz, an unorthodox but frequently sublime ride through brass bombast, electro glitches and squelches, bleeps and bloops, stately choral sequences, and alternately reverb-drenched and Auto Tuned vocal experiments.

On my first listen, I wasn’t sure whether this was terribly amazing or amazingly terrible, and on a couple of subsequent listens I felt it was an ambitious and impressive piece of work, but I did wonder whether the layers and layers of effects and intricate arrangements were a way of masking sub-par songwriting. I was wrong. The writing is strong and inventive, and amid the sometimes abrasive synth-heavy production there is a real core of beauty. It helps that Sufjan has a gorgeous voice and a way with melody. Before The Age of Adz, his detractors may have had him down as a bit of an indie folk softie. I think with this new album, his first “proper” release for five years, his talent and vision is on show now for all to hear.

It’s still very early days, and I’m still processing the album and its lyrics, but I’m feeling very enthusiastic about this record.

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Goldfrapp’s “Head First”: a joy to listen to

Goldfrapp have a reputation for reinvention and replenishing their sound on each album, but advance word on 2010’s Head First was that it was something of a retread back to the supposedly more commercial synth-pop sounds of Black Cherry (2003) and Supernature (2005), after the “pastoral folk-inspired” Seventh Tree (2008) (which, really, was a lot more than that.) The truth is that it’s not a retread by any means; it’s by some distance Goldfrapp’s warmest, most joyous, and most light-hearted album to date.

With Black Cherry, Goldfrapp added a more lascivious, stark electro quality to their sound after Felt Mountain (2000) announced the duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory as something of a nu-Portishead: all atmospheric, subtle electronics and spy soundtrack influences. But really Goldfrapp’s pop smarts were always there from the very beginning; “Human,” from Felt Mountain, has a Shirley Bassey sophistication on record but it’s not a stretch to imagine it with a different, electro pop arrangement and slotting in nicely on Black Cherry. By the same token, Black Cherry wasn’t really the complete departure it was made out to be. Sure, songs like “Train” and “Strict Machine” would have stuck out like a sore thumb on the debut, but the likes of “Hairy Trees” and “Deep Honey” were more akin to the earlier album.

So, rather than “reinventing” their sound on each album, Goldfrapp continue to add new ingredients and rotate their palette, keeping things fresh while retaining the core elements of their sound. Thus, Supernature, which has a reputation as a sexy, synthy electro-pop album, also includes “chillout” songs like “Time Out from the World” and “Let It Take You” among ’70s glam-rock inspired anthems like “Ooh La La” and “Satin Chic.” And, similarly, the supposedly folky Seventh Tree brings back hazy, ’70s slow disco glamour on “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” (which also recalls some of Felt Mountain‘s more yodelly numbers) and perky pop on “Happiness” and “Caravan Girl.”

The word on Head First was that it was all stabbing ’80s synths and cheesy Irene Cara impressions. Not so. At the heart of Head First is a real joy, but there’s no mistaking a darker, melancholic vibe that puts one in mind of The Visitors -era ABBA or Sweet Dreams / Touch -era Eurythmics. Particularly at the heart of the album, in the three-song run of “Dreaming,” “Head First,” and “Hunt,” there’s a beautiful sadness that is pure ear candy. Of course, there are stabbing ’80s synths and knowingly cheesy ’80s impressions (you can imagine “Rocket” on a Jane Fonda workout video, complete with legwarmers – in a good way, though), but hearteningly, it all fits. There’s not a split here like there was on Black Cherry; on that album, it sounded at times as if the duo couldn’t decide whether to throw themselves whole-heartedly into the new electro-pop sound or whether to take a more Felt Mountain-esque tack. Here, while “Rocket” and “Hunt” aren’t necessarily similar, you can tell they’re from the same album, and this level of cohesion and consistency has come with the experience of making five LPs.

The album opens with the aforementioned “Rocket,” which sounds almost like it was put in a time capsule circa 1983 and opened for the first time 26 years later. It’s pure ’80s throwback and all the better for it; the chorus is one of Goldfrapp’s simplest and most effective, an arms-in-the-air stadium synth-rocker; Van Halen’s “Jump” is an obvious antecedent, and there’s also a taste of Prince’s synths on Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back” (from 1983’s The Wild Heart). But Alison’s sensual vocals mark it out as the duo’s own, and there is a winning humour in the song (“oh-oh-oh I’ve got a rocket / oh-oh-oh you’re going on it / oh-oh-oh you’re never coming back”) that is a nice change of pace.

Those fat, stabbing synth sounds are pared back on the starker “Believer,” which is one of the record’s hypnotic, insistent highlights, an ostensibly simple, subtle electro-pop number that nevertheless rewards repeated listening for its dense mix and pristine production. “Alive,” meanwhile, is another example of Goldfrapp travelling down a pure pop route; it’s too joyous and simple and direct to have been on the colder and more obviously sexual Supernature, and as such the warmth is completely refreshing and effective. Goldfrapp’s lyrics about pulling on tight jeans are intended, it seems, as a simple, ‘life-is-good’ kind of message, as opposed to the more knowingly sexual delivery it might have garnered on a previous LP. If one were to pinpoint influences for “Alive,” you could look far back at Elton John or ELO, or more recently at Scissor Sisters or Mika (although Goldfrapp’s sophistication puts them above the latter two artists.)

From here, Head First takes on a darker, more expansive hue, as the songs get longer and the arrangements a little more experimental. The gorgeous “Dreaming” is a swirling, appropriately dreamy mid-tempo ballad with some of Alison’s most evocative vocals and one of the album’s most beautiful melodies. The synths have a melancholy early ’80s effect, and there’s a Tusk -era Stevie Nicks quality to the writing; if you can imagine Fleetwood Mac doing a The Visitors -type album in the early ’80s, you might be close to working out what “Dreaming” sounds like. But, as with all of the material, the influences might be there but they don’t encroach; it doesn’t sound like ABBA or Fleetwood Mac necessarily, but there is a similar “vibe.” Likewise, “Head First” is a joyous, lush romantic rush that recalls some of ABBA’s disco-era material (1979’s Voulez-Vous and 1980’s Super Trouper) in its arrangement and the layered multi-track vocal harmonies.

If you listen to Head First in the spirit of its early ’80s influences (ie on vinyl), Side B opens with the ominous “Hunt,” which starts out with a bubbling rhythm that puts you in mind of a ’90s trance remix, but then the portentous drum beats kick in and it settles into a moody mid-tempo gem that recalls Eurythmics in some of its background harmonies, the Blade Runner soundtrack in its noir-ish atmosphere, and even Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd in its synth lines. Alison’s voice here is high and sexy, and the whole song takes on a dark sound that, on the surface, is pretty far removed from the likes of “Rocket,” but is really almost like a slowed-down, moody flipside. In any case, it fits into the Head First ethos.

One song that initially appears a little at odds with the other material is “Shiny and Warm,” the album’s starkest and simplest electro-pop number. Based around a simple, dirty synth line, it’s obviously a cousin to Supernature‘s “Satin Chic” in its tempo, rhythm, and melodic structure, but Alison’s vocal delivery is as lascivious and sexual as it gets here and the glam-rock posture of “Satin Chic” is replaced by c.1982 synth lines. Repeated listening reveals that it’s not the oddity here you may have thought it was. “I Wanna Life,” meanwhile, marries a “Rocket”-style chorus (complete with similar synth stabs) with one of the album’s saddest and most poignant verses, perhaps among Goldfrapp’s loveliest melodies to date. A number of songs display pure pop joy (“Rocket,” “Alive,” “Head First”), but others have that undeniable warmth tempered by melancholy melodies, and “I Wanna Life,” with its wistful verses and ‘up’ choruses, is a prime example of that. Once the Laurie Anderson-meets-Eno experiment of “Voicething” fades away into the ether, 38 minutes of some of the most sophisticated pop music you are likely to hear this year has left you salivating for more: as the best pop albums should.

Let’s make no mistake: some people will find the ’80s synths on “Rocket” and “I Wanna Life,” plus some of the video-game bleeps and bloops on “Alive,” difficult to warm to. Really, those songs are among Goldfrapp’s finest pop songs – simple, direct, joyous (with an underlying tinge of melancholy) – and repeated listening is sure to reveal their magic. Other songs, like “Dreaming” and “Hunt,” immediately announce themselves as Goldfrapp classics. They’re different from what the duo have done before but retain the sophistication and melodic beauty of their best work. Ultimately, Head First is Goldfrapp’s best pop album. Black Cherry and Supernature were unique pop records in their own right, and feature their share of career highlights, and let’s not forget the less-pop but equally-brilliant Felt Mountain and Seventh Tree, but Head First has a cohesion and consistency that is particularly pleasing. Before this record, Felt Mountain stood as Goldfrapp’s most consistent, cohesive record with a clear vision and sound throughout. After five LPs, they have mastered their inherent diversity and variety and channelled it into a direct, fully-formed album of some of the best work of their career. Whether Head First lives up to the commercial success of its predecessors is no matter; artistically, Goldfrapp have hit on a real winner. This album was written and recorded in a sudden spurt of creativity during 2009 and suggests that the duo strike the jackpot when they go with their gut instincts – as they always do, with consummate integrity. It’s exciting to find Goldfrapp at the ten-year, five-LP mark. They are building up quite the legacy. It will be even more exciting to follow wherever they go next.

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