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.

Thom Yorke – The Eraser (2006)

Yet another amazing album to come out in 2006… what can I say, fertile year I guess. Thom Yorke is definitely a singular phenomenon in mainstream music nowadays. I don’t think any other band receives the respect and unconditional trust that Radiohead enjoy from their audience. I’ve never heard so many people trying their best to like a new Radiohead album, as if it’s their challenge to rise up to the band’s expectations and not the other way around. I’ve gone through this with a couple of their albums – Amnesiac and King of Limbs, to be specific – and I still feel a bit guilty when I think to myself they’re not their best works in my opinion, as if the fault is with my perception for not being able to attune itself to their ideas. And I’m fine with that. I think it’s a good thing that a band has succeeded in projecting such vision. Thom Yorke’s solo is an interesting, odd little thing, mainly because I feel it isn’t as personal, as clear-cut from the Radiohead model (if there is such a thing) as you’d expect a solo album to be.

I suppose what Thom Yorke was trying to do is incorporate even more electronic music influences into some songs, more than the Radiohead of the time would allow. But that doesn’t change the basic strength, the formidable power his songwriting has in the first place. And since Radiohead have shown they’re not easily swayed by things such as commercial success, there’s no reason to assume there have been themes, ideas, subjects which Thom had to avoid somehow in his work with them. The same passion, inspiration, almost possession (in an ancient sense) drives this album, but with a slightly different surface, a moderately mutated form, relying a bit more on programmed beats and effects than on straightforward band instrumentation.

In the meanwhile, Radiohead seem to have incorporated these influences in their main outfit, especially on King of Limbs, so another solo Thom Yorke release on the same lines seems unlikely. But speculation isn’t why I’m writing this blog, so let me get back to “The Eraser”.

Thinking about this album reminds me of a very poetic definition of a bow – a stick which is nine tenths broken. There’s a tension in this music, an anticipation which are completely contagious. I’ve rarely experienced an album with such intensity, conveyed by such minimal means. There are no lush walls of sound on The Eraser. One can instantly identify every instrument used in any given song. This Spartan approach, this economy of means opens up the album to a mind blowing diversity of rhythm. Relying less on harmony leads to unparalleled rhythmic complexity, and I can’t describe to you the feeling I got when I saw Thom Yorke performing “The Clock” live on Jools Holland, backed by only his acoustic guitar. As if the album wasn’t impressive enough, to see the way this man’s mind perceives rhythm when even the aseptic programmed beats get left behind, the way he can sing in one measure and play his guitar in another, it’s absolutely breathtaking and sent shivers down my spine.

Unfortunately I sound like I’m impressed by how technically proficient Thom proves to be. It’s not about that – it’s about how completely natural it is for him, how far beyond the average songwriter’s level he seems to be operating on. I hear that soon enough we have to look forward to a joint release by Thom Yorke and Flea (from The Red Hot Chilly Peppers). About this release, I head Flea say that, probably because his stage antics, people think of him as a very zany, instinctual player, whereas listeners consider Thom Yorke to be quite cerebral and in total control. Flea states the actual situation is exactly opposite. Flea works with musical theory concepts, understands technical terms and relies on them to build his bass lines and songs. Thom… generates these things, they flow through him. And that makes it truly staggering – yes, the music sounds very controlled, very aseptic and spacious, the music gives the impression of an unbelievably calculated, sharp mind at work, giving birth to something only such a mind could spawn, and yet it’s a revealed fact that this is how Thom Yorke is, simply, not by education, not by discipline, hypothesis and experiment, but by grace.

And, after all, thinking about this album flows, how cohesive and expressive it is while remaining so very stripped down of all pomp and circumstance, how eloquent it is with such limited means, I doubt such a feat would’ve been possible by planning and logistics. This album feels like Athena, born whole, fully armored, from Zeus’ head. The music is cold and mighty, so much so I still feel it’s intimidating, even after all these years. “When you walk in a room everything disappears / When you walk in a room it’s a terrible mess / When you walk in a room I start to melt / When you walk in a room I follow you ‘round like a dog…” – these lyrics, sung the way they are sung, are some of the heart-wrenching, scary words I’ve ever heard, filled as they are with this kind of intensity and razor sharp honesty which Yorke’s voice is comprised of. There’s something grotesque here, in the staggering contrast between the robotized, mechanical sounds used to build the sounds and the voice’s overwhelming humanity, there’s a feeling this album conveys which I haven’t heard anywhere else, ever, and I think is unnamed yet.

If you haven’t listened to it yet, I urge you to give it a try. As I said, it might feel intimidating at first (it sure did for me, and still does), but opening oneself up to such a intensity, no matter how overwhelming it might seem, is an experience I can’t recommend enough.