When last we heard from Alison Goldfrapp, on her debut, Felt Mountain (Mute, 2001), she, along with producing partner Will Gregory, had delivered a haunting soundtrack laced with eerie strings, slow-rolling basslines, spooky whistling and her breathy singing (think smokier Tracey Thorn) to a long-lost and nonexistent spy movie. The album, much like Portishead's work, had atmosphere. It was multi-dimensional. Its moody character placed its influences squarely along the continuum of late-'60s instrumental heroes Ennio Morricone and David Axelrod.
With Felt Mountain, Goldfrapp and Gregory had paid homage to the icons and sonic territories that Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow had, as Portishead. However, Goldfrapp, the band, the sound, was more organically based in live instrumentation, rather than Portishead's sampling, and Alison Goldfrapp's singing was less confrontational than Gibbons'. Even so, they owed Portishead a lot and, for good measure, had Portishead's Adrian Utley along playing bass on several tracks.
Touring behind the album they stayed true to its dark side, except for the encore, when they broke out a vampy, synthed-out version of Olivia Newton-John's '80s hit "Physical." This anomaly (or so we thought) also popped up as "U.K. Girls" on a Felt Mountain b-sides disc.
So surprise (!) then, when Goldfrapp's latest, Black Cherry (Mute, 2003) arrived, dressed and ready to disco. Gone, for the most part, are the strings and the horns, replaced by synthesizer, drum machine and vocals sounding like they were treated in the same place Debbie Harry's were during her Blondie days.
The '60s influences are traded in for a new-wave leap to the early '80s. Where Felt Mountain was airy and rural, with room in its arrangements to roam, Black Cherry is claustrophobic, dense and urban. Emotionally, Felt Mountain was completely, elegantly distant. Black Cherry is in both lyrics and instrumentation, its layers one atop the other overtly sexual.
On "Hairy Trees," when she sings "Touch my garden" you know it's not about using a rake and a hoe. And later, in the same song, when she demands you "ride my pony," it's clear the only carnival passing through town is the one in the narrator's bed.
"Twist," which, musically, could be a Prince outtake, continues to run with the hedonistic heroine-on-the loose theme when she breathily declares it's time to "Put your dirty angel face between my legs and knicker lace."
"Tiptoe" is one of the album's highlights. Dressed in effects sponsored by Hasbro's Simon, with its sirens and throbbing bass, "Tiptoe" bangs until it breaks mid-way shedding its aloof layers, a brief revelation, a heart opening, strings and wide open yearning ("Tiptoe over me") naked for a moment before clothing itself again in electronics. This give-and-take plays until the end, when, in a stunning conclusion, the strings return and the colliding past and future selves of one woman meet and, surprisingly, agree with one another.
For those hoping for a Felt Mountain Part 2, Black Cherry will undoubtedly disappoint. There are loose relationships between the works but they seem to be infused by completely different spirits. Felt Mountain was a lot of things focused and haunting but not very sexy.
Black Cherry is made for the disco not the dining room. It's spontaneous and weird and, while its initial thumping may turn off those liking their trip-hop controlled, those who are ready to sweat a little will be rewarded by this unique duo's evolving imagination.