British birdwatcher Alison Goldfrapp digs spaghetti-Western soundtracks and can sing and whistle to beat the band. After providing vocals for both Tricky (Maxinquaye) and Orbital (Snivilisation), she expands Bristol's artsy acid-jazz scene with a remarkable debut -- one that waxes pure nostalgia for sultry torch songs (think Eartha Kitt, Sarah Vaughan) while exerting Moog-altering dreaminess and a melancholy bent for widescreen cinema. But she was locked away in a Wiltshire countryside studio for twelve months with partner and film-score composer Will Gregory, so what else would you expect?
This pair pays homage to John Barry on several fronts. A heavily orchestrated "Human" recalls peppy James Bond numbers like "Thunderball" or "Goldfinger," right down to the chilled champagne and Q-gadgetry. Though with tongue-in-cheek lyrics like "Are you human/or a dud?/are you human/or d'you make it up?" our willowy siren seems more preoccupied with cornering true love than any pesky villain with a monocle or prosthetic hook. The enchanting "Pilots" similarly toys with the yearning melody from "You Only Live Twice" -- blending lofty electronica whilst keeping things dark and seductive. Throughout the disc's seamless production, Goldfrapp chooses her influences wisely, whether it's a nod to Angelo Badalamenti (the polka-flavored bacchanal "Oompa Radar"), Ennio Morricone ("Lovely Head") or the general creepiness of Krzystof Komeda's score for Rosemary's Baby ("Paper Bag") with all those hollow-sounding harpsichords and backing ariels. "Utopia" remains a curious, standout track, a soaring opus that sounds like some kind of fairy tale dreamt up by the Weimar Republic; its narrator -- admittedly "wired to the world" -- forgets who she is despite her self-professed superiority. (She forgets everything, you see, "fascist baby," when she's with you!) Likely doomed for rotation in the world of advertising -- say, as a soundtrack for hawking luxury sedans or the latest eau de mustard gas -- the tune has an opulence and vision that justify its borderline pretensions. Artsiness sometimes works in the right hands, by Jove. And, as Ms. Goldfrapp suddenly finds herself in the cabal of English preciosity (guest stars include Adrian Utley of Portishead and PJ Harvey producer John Parish), this here's somebody who can take flügelhorns, whip-cracks and cuckoo clocks and make 'em work together. Brilliantly so.
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Sure, the view can get a bit dizzying at times (all that bracing mountain air and swelling stringwork), and Goldfrapp's vocal range blankets everything in sight like snow: She's loungey, childlike and unsettling, often simultaneously. She yodels and coos, be it sublime or delirious. Although her enunciation isn't always easy to make out (try following the wonderfully breathless "Deer Stop" for any shred of sense), she takes listeners through uncharted territory like a half-remembered dream. Not a bad start for someone whose name sounds like a fancy cup of coffee.