Some wag at the office recently suggested that if it weren't for Alison Goldfrapp's stunning appearance, Goldfrapp the musical act wouldn't have made it past debut Felt Mountain. Granted, the one-time Orbital vocalist is easy on the eyes, but her most arresting feature by far is her voice. That powerful instrument swings from sultry vamps to ethereal sighs with ease, a range that has allowed Ms. Goldfrapp to cast herself alternately as downtempo chanteuse, electro diva, and now, with fourth album Seventh Tree, as a kind of future-folk singer.
It's not entirely a bad look for the duo, which also includes producer/multi-instrumentalist Will Gregory. The lilting flute and shuffling pomp of "Happiness" is classic, candy psych-pop. The propulsive piano pulse and skyward, sing-along choruses of "Caravan" are the things that car- commercial wet dreams are made of (may I humbly suggest a Dodge Caravan campaign?). "Cologne Cerrone Houdini" reads like it might combine the famous minimal techno of Kompakt's hometown with the organic early Italo of Supernature's namesake, but those influences vanish into an analog chamber pop more closely informed by French band Air.
Still, it's a far cry from the high-water marks of either the psychosexual Black Cherry or the electro glam of Super-nature. "Clowns" opens the album with wispy acoustic guitar picking, melodramatic strings, and plaintive vocals. "Little Bird" oscillates between velvet vocals on the verse, aerial ones on the outro, all-over backward-slipping strings and muted, Eastern guitar flanges. The open-sky reverb and banjo on "Road to Somewhere" are aimless. The restrained breaths and elfin falsettos on "Eat Yourself" are accompanied by distracting background static—room sounds? a bad mic?—odd for a band whose every production choice seems so intentional. Lead single "A&E" is limp coffeehouse balladry (Goldfrappuccino?) dressed up with some soft synths. Closer "Monster Love" is pleasant but utterly without their best work's exhilarating pressure.
Goldfrapp's voice is as gorgeous as ever—she could sing the financial report and sound like an extraterrestrial dream—but this album's adventures into electro- acoustic singer-songwriter territory too often results in chilled-out, easy-listening moods rather than memorable songs. ERIC GRANDY
We Got It for Cheap Vol. 3: Spirit of Competition
Did you get the memo? Live nigga rap is back. The first two We Got It for Cheap mixtapes were manna from heaven, emergency food drops of more dope-related rhyme from street-hop masters Clipse, something to tide the fiends over till the feast that would be their forever-delayed sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury. That album finally dropped amid a white flurry of critical snow jobs, but, despite being a stunning follow-up, it didn't find sales equal to the respect.
Which brings us to the third installment, leaked on Super Bowl Sunday. It's the first WGIFC mixtape credited to the Re-Up Gang (Clipsters Pusha T and Malice combined with Philly's Ab-Liva and Sandman) rather than just Clipse, and rightfully so. As opposed to the sheer no-brainer supremacy of the brothers Thornton on previous installments, here Liva and Sandman easily match hardcore rap's most fearlessly lyrical duo at every turn with a startling barrage of withering wordplay. Clipse deal in their only real subject matter—cocaine and all its attendant difficulties/rewards—with language and flow so graceful, vibrant, and imaginary that it makes rap's most tired premise sparkle with originality.
But while WGIFC1 was aiight and WGIFC2 was a stone classic of hyperliterate coke-rhyme, both were the very definition of "hungry." The most recent chapter, though, reveals a certain ennui, a bitterness about the success that's constantly eluded them despite no shortage of Arctic Monkeys–type hype. Their rhymes—particularly Malice's—have them (temporarily?) downshifted to glaring from the wings, rather than devouring the set: "I can't wait for Skateboard to save me/My house in default, his house paisley/He's not at fault, no, not vaguely/He's on a yacht somewhere with Jay-Z."
The fact is, Clipse and company have been consistently spoiling their fans with the kind of diesel-grade product that few else in this postskills rap landscape are distributing these days. Even on their worst day—which WGIFC3 certainly is not—one whiff of Re-Up's raw will have your whole face numb. LARRY MIZELL JR.
Mahjongg communicate in codes. Their new K Records album, Kontpab, has no title along the side, only a series of pictograms. On the front cover, a series of gridded, partially blacked-out squares alternate with two rows of triangular teeth and triforce gums. On the back, two vertical strips of dot-matrix-printer guide holes flank an indecipherable mess of black-and-white static that looks like it might hide some lost, '80s-era Magic Eye image. The music contained herein is only slightly less opaque, a sometimes frustrating but consistently captivating transmission of punk-funk rhythms, appropriated African drumming, menacing drones, and frequently impenetrable lyrics.
The album opens with two and a half minutes of layered hand drumming and Morse-code pulses before "Pontiac" breaks into its thumb-piano and drum-machine groove. From there, it swerves into the off-kilter new wave of "Problems" and the monotone rapping and mournful android funk of "Kottbusser Torr." The album's lead single, "Tell the Police the Truth," is a collision of hectic laser sirens, loose drum grooves, strutting bass, and droning, sarcastic vocals about the benefits of yielding to state authority. "Those Birds Are Bats" is an unexpected turn of sunny, pogoing pop-punk tape hiss. The latter half of the record settles back into more familiar territory: stuttering synths, rough rhythms, and vocals that range from druggy monotone raps to odd falsetto choruses. "Rise Rice" closes the album with eight and a half minutes of distorted synth waves, madly polyrhythmic percussion, and smeared chanting.
The Chicago crypto-punk collective's live shows are energetic and just as confusing as anything else about them—on at least one tour, old TV monitors, computer towers, and militaristic stencils cluttered the stage while the band beat out their strange racket. Previous recordings have captured Mahjongg's scattered, almost shell-shocked aesthetic, but Kontpab finally nails the willfully obscure band's bizarre live intensity. ERIC GRANDY
Mahjongg play Fri Feb 29 at the Vera Project, 7:30 pm, $8, all ages. With Calvin Johnson, So Many Dynamos.