The opening track, “Horse and I”, on Fur and Gold, the debut album of Britain’s Natasha Khan, is the single most stunning pop track of 2007. Stealing a fast-paced two-tone harpsichord from Boys for Pele-era Tori Amos, Khan’s ethereal voice is soon joined by a swelling string section, UFO sounds, and a military drum line. It may sound like a traffic jam of jarring ideas, but the whole thing works in truly majestic fashion. In other words, “Horse and I” is one of the greatest Bjork songs ever written.
It’s been a good year for Bat For Lashes, who played a solid round of shows at this year’s SXSW festival and then kicked off the summer by scoring a nomination for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize, the single highest critical honor a British album can achieve in a given year. Not bad for a debut effort (especially one that’s littered with mystical imagery). Part of the brilliance lies in the hands of co-producer David Kosten, whose indie-electronica project Faultline remains one of the most criminally underrated groups of the 21st century. His delicate melodic touch can be felt all over Fur and Gold, which is essentially an electronica album that lacks electronic instruments. It is from this organic base that Khan manages to deliver some delightfully original sounds.
Khan exists somewhere in the blurry divide between serious Bjork and crazed Tori Amos. Drawing from these influences, it constantly feels like any given song is about to veer off into wildly experimental/pretentious territory, yet they never do, largely because each track is subtly reigned in by Kosten’s warm production. The gorgeous “Tahiti” could easily have been a pop song written by Thomas Newman: a flurry of autoharp chords fall gently over a brooding piano melody to create an emotional arc that is truly cinematic in nature. “What’s a Girl to Do?” opens with drums that are ready to break open into a Motown girl-group chorus, but then are sharply diverted into a harp-driven Poe song, complete with sexy dry-mouthed monologues in place of verses. Each track is focused around a simple melody (that the Neptunes would kill to sample) slowly repeated as other elements gradually creep in. Nowhere is this more true than on the single “Prescilla”, which wears the Amos-influence on its sleeve with full-on pride, ending up as a genuine left-field pop gem. In most cases, if a group displays their influences front and center, then it can either be simply derivative or, worse, a cheap imitation. Yet when said influences are brought forth with such daring confidence, the comparisons gradually fade away as the whole listening experience becomes an event in itself.
Unfortunately, there are a few notable missteps that keep this album from being a true classic. “Bat’s Mouth” is underwhelming, particularly with its main melody line, which just isn’t as memorable as the tracks that surround it. Another disappointment lies in the lyrical department: Khan’s fairy-tale fantasies usually work well with the music, but sometimes they end up being more befuddling than poetic:
“The caves in our mouths are forest darkness
And the air in between is everflowing
And the rushing deliverance flies past
This shiny shiny teeth
And she is kind and he is free and full of knowing”
This is a case where the lyrics feel like they’re being poetic for the sake of being poetic. Another entry in that contest is “Seal Jubilee”, which comes across like a bad mix of PJ Harvey’s guitar and Lisa Germano’s infatuation with reverb. These non-distinctive moments ultimately pull the listener out of this magical world that Khan is trying so hard to sustain. The fact that she accomplishes this more often than not makes the missteps all the more frustrating.
Yet Khan still knows how to close a show with a bang. Playing like the exact inverse of the fast-paced album opener, Khan closes the set with a moody cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”, making it sound like it’s been recast by the producers of Celtic Woman. The whole thing works and, like any good cover song, Khan makes it her own, recontextualizing the Boss’ hazy, leering verses into something of an oddball empowerment anthem, and it’s achieved with a sense of quiet grace. Fur and Gold is not the greatest album of the 2007, but it’s certainly the most breathtaking.