Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain (2000)

It was 2001, if I recall properly (which is by no means a guarantee). I was in a strange town, beset by many adolescent insecurities and internal abysses, as teens are wont to be. In the span of three days, I’d lost a crush, I’d been confessed another, and I’d discovered Goldfrapp; the music won in the end. It’s still with me today, just as moving, just as jarring.

goldfrappGoldfrapp is a musical duo from England, much better known for their subsequent albums, which adopt a more dance oriented aesthetic and a more flamboyant theatrical presentation. Alison Goldfrapp can be a true diva, in the original sense of the word – a self-created image of a performer, a studied and contrived full-body mask to be worn on stage and to be projected through song. She’s the voice of the duo, and along with Will Gregory, they have been running up and down the scale from chic to silly countless times in the past decade, sometimes with a huge emphasis on sexuality distilled as sound, other times with the “gone with the fairies” vibe of neopagan trappings. Goldfrapp is nothing if not a constant process of reinvention, which allows them to flirt with mainstream success (when I say flirt, I actually mean “make out on top of the most popular club in London’s wall of speakers for the whole world to see”) and allow themselves the freedom to be genuinely artistic and capable of ushering heartbreaking beauty into the world with their music.

If elegance and oddness could sing, Felt Mountain would be their lullaby. This was Goldfrapp before the horse-tails worn on stage, before the squad of bikini-clad demoiselles with wolves’ heads on. This was a more stylized, subtle concept. Alison and Will had just decided to take the plunge and work together, and their working conditions were dire – a cottage in England, beset by vermin and insects crawling up the walls. I’m sure that contributed somewhat to the wartime-like elegance, melancholy and sophistication of their music. Felt Mountain sounds like it’s comprised of memories of a better time, trickling down into music like water on the wall – painfully, ominously.

There’s a Bond soundtrack vibe to many of these songs, and a surreal ripple reminiscent of Combustible Edison’s borderline “demon circus” musings. Felt Mountain is an album of seduction with dark shines, a retro-futuristic film noir of a record, a mind bending journey through beautiful malaise. The only other outfit I know who could incite the same sort of bittersweet defeat when faced with their music is Portishead, who had just went on their epic hiatus when Felt Mountain was released. It is merely a vague stylistic connection, and more than anything a personal impression – Goldfrapp have an entirely different set of resident obsessions and references.

This music is so evocative and burrows so deep that the 2001 story introduction I made to this article has been clad in the sounds of Goldfrapp’s Utopia song ever since, sparking poetry, fascination, endless conversations and goose-bump inducing remembrance ever since; music entwined with identity. If you, dearest readers, haven’t listened to Felt Mountain, I hope my recommendation can nudge you to do so. Truly, it is a thing to enjoy.

Jill Tracy – Diabolical Streak (1999)

I found about Jill Tracy inexcusably late. She’s been trailblazing the dark cabaret genre for about two decades now, and I only came across her last week – I can hardly believe it, given it’s one of my favorite genres. In any case, I’m completely enthralled by her sophisticated, affected voice and by the nocturnal, ominous sound of her piano playing. Diabolical Streak is one of the best albums I’ve heard in the past few months and I’m so excited about this “discovery” that I can’t help writing about it today.

There’s only so much one can say about a genre so well defined as the dark cabaret. Some things never change in this tight little circle – seduction, sin, temptation, murder and perversion writhe in every corner of this music, under the guise of velvety elegance and innuendo. It’s tremendously passionate music, so much so that one feels a slight nervous tremor hidden between the notes, no matter how calm and collected the singer might seem. And it’s also violent, desperate music, essentially dramatic, as if every song were the last. Some groups focus on this violence (I believe Dresden Dolls to be the best example of this), other focus on the dark, twisted themes and slight insanity tainting the genre (Tiger Lillies come to mind). Jill Tracy is the first musician I found who sells the passion, the emotional turmoil and tremendous, tragic beauty which lies there, waiting to be uncovered, in the darkest corners of experience. Her voice seems paradoxically dispassionate for such a statement, but there are a few details which give the status quo away from my perspective. Her accent, so very sought-after, so very theatrical, the bitter half-smile one can detect in every musical phrase, the humor, feeling more like a defense mechanism than in any other outfit I’ve heard within the genre, all of these little clues make me believe Jill Tracy embodies the perfect dark cabaret diva, the quintessentially heart-broken, ever-so-lonely lady, as dangerous and damaged as she’s alluring.

This music would make a perfect backdrop for a film noir. Dramatically cynical, sexually charged and ineffably sensual, the narrative in these songs always seems to point one way – a heart-break, a disaster, a fatal mistake, a tragic oversight… the bourbon-drenched drama of a stereotypical hard-boiled detective and the woman which made him forget his tried-and-true method for that one fateful moment. “Theatrical” is the name of the game here – all or nothing, heavenly promise grafted on a hellish premise. One of the masks frowns and the other smiles a seductive smile, and at the confluence lies despair, in muted purple and green light. Love lingers after lust, like a lukewarm memory, while loneliness looms around every corner. And all of this sentiment bubbles under a foot thick layer of makeup and ice. How could one not love the promise of such intensity, even if it’s a mere echo and it never seems to lead anywhere but some sort of eventually banal little doomsday scenario?

In spite of the popularity this genre has gained as of late, Jill Tracy makes me feel like I’m listening to something exotic, shrouded in mystery, alcoholic vapors and cigarette smoke, and for that I’m terribly fond of her. This album is completely believable in its over the top drama, and that is no small accomplishment. It doesn’t appeal to outside means to gain credibility, and thus manages to pierce through the thick armor of irony I feel I’ve so carefully been taught to craft for myself. I can’t not notice this music is just an avatar of something older and more well rooted in reality, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me believe the truth of the emotions contained within. It feels like suddenly being able to speak a long-dead language. And it’s a rare thing indeed when Brechtian theatrical detachment works so well in convincing the viewer of the reality of the events and tribulations being hinted at with the veneer of indifference.

I really hope you’ll enjoy the deliciously dark, bitter, sexy sound of Jill Tracy’s music. From my point of view, it’s the discovery of the month and had it come in 2011, it’d have been the discovery of the year. Theater in musical form, and an unnamed something more.