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.

Rob Dougan – Furious Angels (2002)

It would come as no surprise to me to find out that people have completely forgotten about Rob Dougan – The Matrix came out in 1999, fourteen years ago! It’s old enough to be featured on weekday nights on TCM. His initial and arguably most solid claim to fame came from the songs he wrote for the notorious movie’s score, and the only album he released came three years later, fundamentally different from the vibe he had been known for from The Matrix score. It was such an unusual record for him, and for the yearly “naughties”, that I get the feeling the critics were jarred (although mostly pleasantly surprised) and the public was baffled. Ever since, Rob Dougan has completely disappeared (save for a few songs he wrote for The Sugarbabes, oddly enough), leaving people like me gasping for more.

Rob Dougan

Half way between Tom Waits and Portishead, Rob Dougan’s sound is utterly distinctive and, as far as I’m concerned, unforgettable. I can’t think of one single track on this record that’s sub-par, there’s not one single moment which fails to keep up with the overall intensity – and what intensity, what teeth-gritting ferociousness infuses these songs. The album is one of the most eloquent distillations of despair I’ve ever heard, mostly mere millimeters away from melodrama, an unprecedented combination of adolescent angst and mature meditation, made complete by the dolorous contrast between the jagged, lumbering, ominous beats and the sweeping strings, the overwhelming orchestration and layering of the thing. It sounds like a masterpiece of patience and design, a sprawling scape of emotional architecture made sound, injected with urgency and anguish and breathtaking beauty. I simply can’t believe a songwriting talent like this would just completely shut off all output in such a cruel way – after announcing work on two separate albums at once, in 2006. Ever since, silence. It’d be furious if the situation weren’t so theatrically ironic somehow.

The music is formidably cinematic, it conveys a deep sense of narrative, hence my mentioning Portishead, while being wonderfully complemented by Rob Dougan’s voice, harrowed and shaking as it is. I might have been a bit shallow to mention Tom Waits in this context, based mostly on his ravaged timbre, because there’s little to no humor in these songs, unlike in most of Waits’ work, and much less metaphor, a much less poetic approach. The communication is direct, marred by a raw honesty, an un-crafted flow of emotion which makes me feel there’s something adolescent to this, some refreshing lack of constraint and social witticism, that “modern cool” which acts as a sort of defense mechanism, placing distance between the storyteller and the story. Rob Dougan doesn’t afford himself this luxury – this is music for the wounded, and it may leave one speechless if stumbled upon at the right time.

There really isn’t much more I want to say about this album. It’s one of those “desert island” disks for me, some of the best music to come out in the last decade or so. I honestly hope you get to enjoy it without the tempting emotional framework it seems to summon so easily. After endless plays, after a myriad moments bringing closure for various wounds, I feel I’m finally over that once-impassable barrage which didn’t allow me to write about Furious Angels until now. There is no detachment to be found when faced with this music… at this point, I think it would be disrespectful to pretend otherwise. In any case, enjoy!

Portishead – Roseland New York City Concert (1997)

Just so you guys know, I haven’t forgotten about live Saturdays. The past few weeks have been pretty draining and I’m having a hard time pulling myself together. I guess it shows in the frequency of my posts. In any case, I’ve got a great video for today. I know I wrote about this album before, but the Roseland NYC performance is simply legendary, and it’s, to my eyes, even more impressive and charming than the studio material Portishead issued throughout the years.

Beth Gibbons is just staggering live. She’s so intense she seems to bend the space around her, in spite of seeming so awkward, so fragile on stage. To me it feels like it’s all she can do not to curl up in a fetal position, in midair, and draw all the light and air out of the room towards her, as a sort of supernatural human/black hole hybrid. I must admit I’ve had a crush on Beth Gibbons ever since I first heard her, but seeing her smoking a cigarette while singing like that makes me want to forget I ever tried quitting! I can’t recall ever seeing a cooler image in my life!

The music itself is greatly augmented by the orchestra. The ominous, hurtful, emotional maelstrom bubbling beneath the surface in Portishead’s simple, repetitive riffs and heavy rhythms is simply elevated to a new level of intensity with the subtle presence of the strings vibrating in the background. The movie soundtrack influence in many of the band’s songs is thus highlighted in a very effective way, everything becomes even more overwhelming, even larger than life. I can’t believe Portishead haven’t done a James Bond theme song yet, honestly…

Well, I leave you with Roseland NYC, one of the most intense concert videos I’ve ever seen, and I’ll see you soon!

Portishead – Portishead (1997)

Does Portishead really need an introduction? After a ten year hiatus, their third album was probably the most highly anticipated release of 2008. They’re credited if not with the downright invention, than at least the popularization of the trip-hop genre, even though they’re reluctant to accept that label for their music. Beth Gibbons has one of the most remarkable and instantly recognizable voices in the music industry and is the closest example the past twenty years have had of a true lady, in the Billie Holiday and Nina Simone sense. Their second, self-titled album is one of the most interesting, enthralling collections of songs I’ve ever heard, so here it is, my star-struck, mesmerized interval of gushing at Portishead’s magnificence.

Source: alwaysontherun.net

I associate this album with a Romanian novel, written by Mircea Eliade, known abroad mostly for his studies on the history of religion. The novel’s translation in English is “The Forbidden Forest”, based on the French edition, since the original, Romanian title would make absolutely no sense anywhere else but here, because it references an ancient, pagan holiday when the heavens open and all manner of supernatural events may happen, from wishes being granted to slipping through the fabric of reality and time and losing yourself in the ebb and flow of the spiritual abyss bubbling under and over our thin layer of perception. The book isn’t quite as dramatic as the holiday it alludes to, but this music is. I suppose that’s why I can’t dissociate the two – this album gave a whole new depth to the book, painted the words in colors so intense and so mystique that I can’t think of it in any other way. I would sit on the balcony in summer and watch the clouds roll by at sunset, in reading intermissions, listening to this album, right on the night of that pagan holiday, and the truly magical feeling charging the air was literally unforgettable.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a paradox, but the album itself isn’t at all lofty and phantasmagorical, staying firmly planted in reality, at least when it comes to references and lyrical themes. What I mean to say is that, while there are artists who make a conscious effort to create a mystical mood, that’s not Portishead’s cup of tea. However, what happens is that Beth Gibbon’s voice and lyrics treat instantly recognizable emotions and turmoil with a depth and sensibility which somehow upgrades them to a level of intensity surpassing (at least my) experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this music is larger than life. Their aesthetic is highly referential towards film scores and imagery, so it’s not surprising that the album should have this silver screen quality, but what is surprising is the overwhelming way the band actually pulls off this style, as to still be completely unmatched.

Beth Gibbon’s voice, precise and articulate, marked by a sort of disappointed dryness, collates splendidly over Geoff Barrow’s guitar work and Adrian Utley’s claustrophobic, eerie beats and samples, creating an overall feeling of ominous, dark, draining substance, as if the album itself could exert a sort of emotional gravitational pull. I’ve rarely heard music so tremendously dense, with such fierce intensity, right as it’s kept under the pressure-cooker lid of Beth Gibbon’s seemingly apathetic and barren style of delivery. That’s why she reminds me so much of Billie Holiday – I feel the same simplicity, the same succinct mode of singing – raw under the subtle veneer of elegance and refinement, almost like the memory of a wound on a well-healed stretch of skin.

I’m not a huge fan of Portishead’s third album, it seems to me like the outstanding chemistry between the instrumental part and the vocals isn’t quite there, which is why I chose their second album to talk about instead. Truth be told, if I hadn’t felt like it would’ve been cheating, I’d have talked about their live album, Roseland NYC, because of the added drama and depth which the string orchestra brings to these songs. In any case, I can definitely recommend all of their albums, even though I don’t get the same thrill from Third as I do from the others. Their morose, meditative style is simply unique, and I believe it merits all the attention it can possibly get. There’s also a bit of an extra perk to this album – the video for the song Over is still, after years and years, my favorite music video, so I’m very pleased to be able to embed it here. Enjoy!

The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble – Here Be Dragons (2009)

This band has a penchant for staying under the radar, although their melodies, especially on this album, are attuned to the brilliance and emotional depth explored by Portishead and Massive Attack. I say especially on this album, because they seem to have opened themselves, at least partly, to a wider audience as of late. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble is a rather twisted band at heart, with an interest in plumbing some of the stranger sides of music. They used to do that a lot more a little while back, but ever since they came up with a modular band structure – that is to say, a sort-of alter-ego designed especially for going all out in improvisational experiments, cleverly titled “The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation” – they’ve managed to keep it under control and present some really great, slightly sinister, enthralling music.

“Here Be Dragons” is a tough album, nebulous and dramatic. There are gorges of dissonance, lush mists descend in the blink of an eye drowning you out, only to provide wonderful contrast with the soaring, sparkling brilliance of the occasional ray of sonic sunlight bursting through. The music never seems to settle on a pattern, cracking up and evaporating every time you think you’ve gotten used to it. It would normally feel like  a cheap shot to keep comparing their sound to mountainous landscapes, but I really feel like it’s the way to go in their case. There’s something volcanic about them. A slumbering titan of sound bubbling under the surface, shifting in its sleep once in a while and shaking the earth along with it. There are lava flows and sulphurous fumes, white caps of snow and jagged rocks lying in wait at every step, and the band doesn’t make much of an effort to carve you a comfy foot-path to follow. But I think that’s good. The savage soundscape works best like this – it’s not meant to cuddle, it’s meant to awe. And, in my case, it certainly does.

Driving, generous bass lines, smooth and unpredictable beats, incandescent brass melodies and improvisations, crystalline piano chords… The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble’s music is geological, defined by gravity, weight, volume and tectonic movement rather than the ebbs and flows of more fluid soundsmiths. It is also theatrical, powerfully visual, in the sense that listening to this album incites a myriad ideas for stage and costume design in my mind, stage designs to act as counterpoints to the human presence and activity. Imagine the contrast between a primeval space, a cold, slow, ancient space, defined by patience and silence, in which characters from a play appear, caught between their own brand of conflict and the inhospitable circumstance – I’m thinking existentialist theater at its most striking.

I’ve rarely, if ever, heard a combination of electronic music and jazz of such caliber, save perhaps for the Esbjorn Svensson Trio’s last offering, the staggering “Leucocyte”. But even that album isn’t as consistent and relentless. So, give these guys a try, for dramatic days and for vibrant vespers.