Goldfrapp, the British duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, drew quite a following off their last two albums, Black Cherry and Supernature, which were most memorable for their hard-hitting, synth-laden glam pop. I love both albums, as well as their mellower debut, Felt Mountain.
For Seventh Tree, the band's fourth outing, they've extinguished the disco stomp. there's no "Ooh La La" or "Strict Machine" here. In its wake they've returned to the odd psychedelia that permeated Felt Mountain, revisiting that album's emphasis on creating purely lovely melodies. Seventh Tree is comprised primarily of the kind of songs that formed a counterpoint on the last two albums, atmospheric tracks like Black Cherry's "Hairy Trees" or Supernature's "Time Out from the World." The lyrics may not make any sense ("only clowns would play with those balloons"...huh?), but the beauty of the music speaks for itself.
First track "Clowns" and first single "A&E" are perhaps the two loveliest songs Goldfrapp has ever crafted. "Clowns" in particular is such a lovely, gentle blend of acoustic guitar and strings. "A&E" is a very different sound for Goldfrapp, even on this record. Unlike most of the other songs, the lyrics are clearly distinguishable, even if their meaning is still muddled--something about going to the metaphorical emergency room ("A&E"=Accident and Emergency, not arts and entertainment). There are no clues in the second verse to the story set up in the first, for it is identical. For this subject matter the sound is surprisingly upbeat, blending piano, guitar, synths and percussion to a mid-tempo beat. It's the most obviously radio friendly track they've ever done.
Goldfrapp have long had an affinity for the kind of swelling strings composer John Barry used for scoring the James Bond movies, and its been noted in the past that the band's music is sometimes reminiscent of this. Several of this album's tracks, including "Clowns" as well as "Eat Yourself" and "Cologne Cerrone Houdini" exhibit these touches. Static crackles over "Eat Yourself" like an old record. This is another highlight, starting with acoustic instruments and bass, adding in harpsichord and eventually strings near the end. "Cologne Cerrone Houdini" opens with bass guitar and synth bursts, building with warm Barry-esque chords during the chorus.
"Happiness" is another highlight. It is one of the album's peppiest track, featuring a blend of keyboards and vocal effects that stomp along to insistent drums and hand claps. "Caravan Girl" also kicks up the beat over synths and piano. "Some People," one of the album's slowest tracks, opens simply with piano and vocals, building through the chorus with lush strings and synths. The only track that doesn't do it for me is "Little Bird," which is just a little too folksy.
Despite what I said about the lack of disco, don't think that Seventh Tree is a radical departure. Many of the same elements from their previous work--the moody atmosphere, the Barry-esque soundscapes--show up here, and a track like "Happiness" embodies the same insistent beat as songs like "Satin Chic" or "Train," albeit a bit toned down. Sure there are fewer beats and less dial twiddling, but the strength of their musical instinct remains fully intact.
Best: Clowns, A&E, Happiness, Eat Yourself, Cologne Cerrone Houdini, Some People