At first, it's hard to be anything except stunned while listening to Goldfrapp's sophomore release, Black Cherry. Where the British pop-electronica duo's acclaimed debut Felt Mountain was all fur coats and cigarette holders, Black Cherry's glam-industrial synths evoke vinyl catsuits, sequined stockings and comparisons to new wave/synth-pop outfits like Blondie and the Eurythmics, a far cry from the Portishead and John Barry allusions that peppered every review of Felt Mountain's dulcet tones. What the heck happened to Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory between albums?
The main answer, I suspect, is that they spent a lot of time touring, where they discovered that for all their sonic prettiness, the songs on Felt Mountain didn't make for the most electrifying of live shows. With the exception of the epic, soaring "Utopia" and their cheeky cover of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical", Goldfrapp in concert was a pretty stiff affair, which not even Alison's powerhouse voice and kittenish good looks could save.
Black Cherry should change all that in a big way. Managing to be colder, sexier, catchier and more boldly experimental than Felt Mountain all at once, it's a brilliant, nervy album, one that should (and, judging from early reviews, already has) thrill, piss off and polarize old Goldfrapp fans even as it rakes in throngs of new ones.
Since all the talk is inevitably going to be about those vampy synths and Alison Goldfrapp's new sexed-up persona, I think it's worth pointing out right off that not everything on Black Cherry is a total departure from the duo's downtempo roots. The ballads here, especially the harpsichord-tinged "Deep Honey" and the sylvan "Hairy Trees", pick up right where "Lovely Head" and "Pilots" left off, pillowing Alison's sweetly melancholy purr of a voice on a lushly cinematic bed of electronics and strings. Even "Tiptoe", arguably the album's best song, shapeshifts from droning synths and distorted vocals into a sweeping orchestral bridge before finally blending the two sounds together into an epic finale that recalls the climax of "Utopia". The fact that the new song is about sex (unless the lines "You look good / Tiptoe over me" have some other interpretation I'm unfamiliar with), while the old one was about fascism, hardly matters in this context. As epic-minded pop songwriting, both pack an emotional wallop few other acts are even trying to achieve these days.
But back to the slinky, sexy, catsuit stuff, which is clearly where Goldfrapp wants our attention to be, as they lead off the new album with two of their buzziest tracks, "Crystalline Green" and the album's first single, "Train". The strutting beats and stridently retro synths are what immediately jump out at you, but what's almost as striking is how catchy both songs are. On both verse and chorus, Alison Goldfrapp's velvet voice carries the tune instead of shadowboxing with it, as she preferred to do on Felt Mountain's more oblique tracks. As a result, both songs invite comparisons not to the recent electro-clash craze so much as to classic early '80s synth-pop, the stuff from bands like Depeche Mode and Human League that took new wave's edgy mix of punk attitude and disco electronics and made it radio-and-MTV-friendly. There's nothing derivative about these tracks, however; even though the influences are obvious, Gregory's dense arrangements and Goldfrapp's incomparably elastic voice make the sound entirely their own.
Still, most of Black Cherry probably fits the Human League comparison too closely for the comfort on their old fan base. Already, some initial reviews have hinted at sellout, or at the very least complained that these new, more pop-oriented songs don't do full justice to Alison Goldfrapp's voice. And it's true that on songs like "Train" and especially the grindy dance-pop ditty, "Twist", with its irresistible chorus and overtly sexual lyrics ("Put your dirty angel face / Between my legs and my knicker lace"), you can hear Goldfrapp striving to transform themselves from highbrow downtempo darlings into bona fide rock stars. They might succeed, too. While Black Cherry's more overtly synth-pop tracks are probably a little too unabashedly retro to crack American top 40 radio, the ballads just might have the right amount of sweetness and polish to get the job done. My money's on the achingly beautiful title track or possibly "Forever", a luminous torch song that features Alison Goldfrapp's most unaffected vocal performance to date. Yes, they're both ear candy compared to an eerie, arty mood piece like "Deer Stop", but so what? I'd rather get my pop fix from a truly gifted artist like Goldfrapp than from the pre-packaged Mandy Moores and JLos of the world.
And that, finally, is the good news about Black Cherry. For all its overtures toward mainstream pop songcraft, this is still a weird, edgy album, the work of two doggedly maverick talents chasing their muses wherever they take them, whether it's to the dungeon -- as on "Strict Machine", a future S&M club anthem if ever there was one -- or to the arena -- clearly the intended destination of "Train". So long as she and Will Gregory can court a more pop-oriented sound without watering down their style, then I say let Alison Goldfrapp turn herself into a shameless sex-pop diva. I'll bet their concerts this time around are going to rock.