Album review: Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree

While the temptation for Goldfrapp to continue riding the wave of commercial success generated by the one-two punch of 2003’s Black Cherry and 2005’s million-selling Supernature must have been great, in the end they opted for a sonic left turn with Seventh Tree. While this latest effort from the duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory is not at all a retreat to the sonic territory carved by their otherworldly, cabaret-styled debut, Felt Mountain, neither is it a continuation of the electro-glam of Black Cherry or Supernature.

That much is made clear on the opening track, “Clowns,” a tender and understated folk-styled number that opens with nothing but Alison’s vocals and some delicate acoustic guitar work. It sets the stage for a record that is more appropriate for a sunny Sunday morning in bed than a Saturday night dancing in a club.

There’s already been much gnashing of teeth over this new style, and how Golfrapp might be alienating many of the fans they’ve picked up over the last few years because of the slower pace and relatively more straightforward pop and folk songwriting featured on Seventh Tree. It’s perhaps a reasonable concern, although it’s far too early to tell.

But if this comes to pass, it won’t be because the album lacks quality songs. In addition to the beautiful opener, there are some real gems here. “Little Bird” sounds like a lost track from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour sessions (were it recorded in the 21st century), replete with a slinky bass line that calls to work some of Paul McCartney’s best work with the Fab Four.

Seventh Tree is not Goldfrapp’s most upbeat or instantly catchy record by any means, nor is it their most consistent. But its high points outnumber the low, and it is a worthy entry into the catalog of a band that has already proven to be as satisfying as it is unpredictable.

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Monday music stuff – Michael Jackson, Tapes ‘n Tapes, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

This month saw the release of a 25th Anniversary edition of Michael Jackson’s seminal album Thriller (even though it originally came out in November ’82). I owned the album on vinyl back in the day, and loved it to death before I officially renounced All Things Not Metal around ’84/’85. My palette is considerably broader than it used to be, so I gave the album another listen today.

Removing any historical context from Thriller (which is difficult), it is still a very good album; I just can’t say that it’s deserving of its near universal acclaim and ridiculous sales figures (more than 104 million sold!). There are some rather clunky production flourishes added by Quincy Jones (the title track in particular sounds pretty goofy now), and a lot of it does sound rather dated. That said, it is a winner in terms of sheer songwriting craft and energy. While “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” still hold up as pop standards a quarter century later, I have to say that “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”, and “Human Nature” are really the standout songs.

Still, there are weak spots. The slightly hokey “The Girl Is Mine” isn’t even the best duet Jackson recorded with Paul McCartney – “Say Say Say” gets that honor. Album closer “The Lady in My Life” was only one of two songs from Thriller not to be released as a single, and for good reason.

Songs aside, it’s easy to forget that before he became a Freak (capital F needed), Michael Jackson was not just a great dancer but a damn fine vocalist. It was rather pleasant to hear him sing with seemingly boundless conviction and energy, instead of with the breathy sedateness and abundance of vocal tics he employed later in his career. I would say that at the time he was the best vocalist in the genre since Stevie Wonder. Which just makes his decline all the more sad.

OK, onto other matters. Music site Stereogum published two items you should check out today. The first is a series of videos from a recent CMT special featuring Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. They performed their fantastic rendition of “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)“, which was one of the best songs of 2007, as well as a pair of Led Zeppelin classics (“When the Levee Breaks” and “Black Dog”).

What struck me about watching the reworking of the two Zeppelin songs was how it seems that I was watching the music return to its roots. Zep began as a essentially a blues band with amplifiers, and now their music being brought full circle. Rock purists may cringe at the seemingly subdued arrangements, but I love them. Also, I just cannot get enough of Alison Krauss’ voice. It’s just so refreshing to hear a female singer perform with her natural talents and not employ the host of grating affectations that plague so many of today’s singers.

The other item of note is the first single from the upcoming Tapes ‘n Tapes album, Walk It Off – “Hang Them All.” Stereogum has a downloadable mp3 for your listening pleasure, and I highly recommend it. It features a tighter arrangement and beefier sound than 2005’s The Loon, but their basic sound is still intact. If this is any indication of how the full album will sound, we may have an early candidate for best album of 2008.

Now go forth and listen…shamon!

2007 – The Year in Recorded Musical Performances, Pt. 2

OK, so we’ve reviewed what I believe to be the standout albums from the year that was. The second part of my year-end review reviews some of the best songs of the year. You likely wouldn’t have heard any of these songs on radio (at least not terrestrial radio). In fact, I couldn’t pick out any of this year’s most popular radio songs if my life depended on it.

Note – I tried to find official videos for these songs, but in some cases I could only find live versions (some better than others).

The Best of the Best (Songs)

“Melody Day”, Caribou (Andorra) – This track opens the very excellent Andorra like a fresh breeze from the mid-’60s. I would swear this was produced by Phil Spector in his prime, what with its heavy use of reverb, jangly guitars, and a soaring chorus. Sure there’s nothing terribly original here, apart from introducing more modern electronic elements into the mix, but a good song is a good song.

“Mutiny, I Promise You”, The New Pornographers (Challengers) – The Pornographers’ latest album has been taking a beating from a lot of fans since it came out, but I can’t see how anyone who likes the group wouldn’t think this song is a winner. And for the record, I really enjoy Challengers.

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2007 – The Year in Recorded Musical Performances, Pt. 1

Fancy graphic!

Compiling Best of/Worst of music lists is always a risky endeavor. Inevitably you’ll have a bunch of people who are upset because this band or that song was either left off, placed too highly, or included at all. Luckily for me I don’t give a crap what anyone else thinks. That being said, I am including the caveat that I am only one man and simply don’t have as much time to listen to and absorb music as I used to, so I readily admit that I probably missed out on a lot of good stuff this year.

As far as what to include – I didn’t want to include so many albums/songs from 2007 as to render this list useless, but I didn’t want to overlook anything either.

The Best of the Best (Albums)

Field Music, Tones of Town – This is my favorite album of the year in a landslide. I am a sucker for intelligent Britpop, and this is first-rate stuff. Superb harmonies, clever arrangements, and tight performances elevate this far above Field Music’s debut album. So of course it figures that the band is now broken up (or on hiatus).

Minus the Bear, Planet of Ice – A big debt of gratitude is owed to the AV Club for this discovery. They posted a clip of “Knights,” and I was hooked instantly. Call it indie rock, math rock, or whatever you want – this is 21st century prog rock, and it is a beautiful thing. A few minor gripes aside (vocals tend to be too even-keeled, drags a bit in some places) this is the best rock album of the year.

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Memory Almost Full – An understated triumph for McCartney

Memory Almost Full

Paul McCartney long ago passed the point in his life and career where he had anything left to prove. Yet at 64, he continues to release new music at a pace that puts acts half his age to shame. And while his post-Beatles work has been derided by many as being so much fluff, his output over the last decade has been consistently satisfying.

Macca’s winning streak, which began with 1997’s Flaming Pie, continues with his most recent release, Memory Almost Full. And while it may not surpass McCartney’s best albums (Band on the Run and Tug of War to name a few), Memory Almost Full reveals that Sir Paul’s gift for melody is still very much intact.

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Macca is back-a.

Paul McCartney’s new video, “Dance Tonight”, made its debut on YouTube today. I checked it out, and it’s pretty good (it even has an appearance by Natalie Portman). Not stunning, but good. It’s the first single from his upcoming album, Memory Almost Full, which comes out in a few weeks. And for those who aren’t up on his rather large body of solo work (which is unjustly criticized), that’s all been made available for legal download on Rhapsody.

The thing that gets me about Macca is that even at age 64, he seems to still have the ability to conjure up great melodies with seemingly little effort. And after a period of not-so-great albums starting in the mid-’80s, he began a revitalization of sorts with 1997’s Flaming Pie. That creative rebirth was evident on his last record, the excellent Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Memory Almost Full has already gotten some positive buzz behind it, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

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