Goldfrapp have spent the past decade teasing us. Their 2002 debut ‘Felt Mountain’ is rightly regarded as indispensable, but since then the London duo have bounced uneasily between electro-pop, ambient melancholia and trip-hop without ever quite delivering the baroque masterpiece we know they’re capable of. Frustrating, yes, but on the strength of the leaked single “Drew” I pre-ordered ‘Tales of Us’ on vinyl; something I almost never do with new releases, the quality of small batches is too variable, but that’s another story entirely.
“Drew” is magnificent and promised us the world, so does the rest of the album deliver it?
Parts of it do, most of it doesn’t. What we get are fragmented bits of the promised world floating in a musical plasma. So… just what do I mean by that enigmatic half-metaphor?
Well… the album starts out wonderfully. The first three tracks; “Jo”, “Annabel” & “Drew” (yeah, all the song titles are given names with the exception of “Stranger”) are harmonically complex and sophisticated gems. Comprised of acoustic guitar, piano & strings and guided by Alison Goldfrapp’s wonderful vocal melodies, they form a graceful, almost perfect suite. As I alluded to earlier, “Drew” is a triumph. An ornate dreamscape, its emotive power and beauty are remarkable. It’s the standout moment on the disc… So why release it as the fucking teaser track?! Don’t do that! Tease us, that’s what a teaser track is for! Don’t give us the orgasm then deliver some light titillation, that’s back-ass-wards! Perhaps it initially shifted some more units… It certainly prompted me to buy the record, but conversely it’ll certainly result in reviews like this which will have the opposite effect.
Here’s the problem with most of the remaining content: for a start the album is almost totally devoid of percussion, save for some very light cymbal & snare work and a pounding dance beat in the sixth track “Thea”. Certainly not a cardinal sin in itself, but the album suffers from an awful sameyness throughout. The first three tracks aside, the remainder is ashen and drab; it’s as if each ensuing track is merely a faded duplicate of the one preceding it. It’s prosaic, repetitious and just… boring I’m afraid.
The only real stylistic sidestep is “Thea” and amazingly, given what I’ve already written, it’s an unwelcome one. The last thing you want after being lulled into a shiftless daze is for your woofers to kick you in the guts with a banging house beat! It’s almost as if they included it to wake you up “Hey you, the album’s only half over, concentrate!”. Great…
The other big problem I have with this album is the production on Alison’s vocals. For the most part, she sings quite softly. Nothing wrong with that, a good intimate vocal take would suit the downtempo and brooding nature of the music. The problem is, her vocals have been so heavily compressed that her breath, rather than the sung note, is the dominant sound. Her vocals have become a harsh, cutting hiss with excessive sibilance and it becomes quite unpleasant at times. Thankfully her delivery varies enough that it doesn’t adversely affect the entire album… enough to be really irritating though. Surprisingly the vinyl cut suffers more severely from this than does the CD, although it does benefit in other ways; more detailed instrumental timbre for example.
Normally when any given pundit says an album is “like the soundtrack to an unmade film” it’s a compliment. Well, I’m saying it… and it isn’t. Apart from a few all-too-brief flashes of sparkling brilliance, ‘Tales of Us’ is languid drudgery.
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