British bird watcher Alison Goldfrapp digs spaghetti Western soundtracks and can sing and whistle to beat the band. Having provided vocals for both Tricky (Maxinquaye) and Orbital (Snivilisation), she expands Bristol's artsy acid-jazz scene with a remarkable debut -- one that waxes nostalgic for sultry torch songs (think Eartha Kitt or Sarah Vaughan) while exerting Moog-altering dreaminess and a melancholy bent for wide-screen cinema. But locked away in a studio for 12 months with partner and film-score composer Will Gregory, 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 a yearning melody from "You Only Live Twice" -- blending extraneous electronica while keeping things dark and seductive. Throughout the disc's seamless production, Goldfrapp chooses her influences wisely, making nods to Angelo Badalamenti (the polka-flavored bacchanal "Oompa Radar"), Ennio Morricone ("Lovely Head"), and the general creepiness of Krzystof Komeda's score for Rosemary's Baby ("Paper Bag") with all those hollow-sounding harpsichords and backing arias.
"Utopia" remains a curious, standout track, a soaring opus that sounds like some fairy tale dreamed up by the Weimar Republic. Likely doomed for rotation in the world of advertising -- say, hawking luxury sedans or the latest eau de mustard gas -- the tune's opulence and vision more than justifies its borderline pretensions. Artsiness sometimes works in the right hands, by cracky. And as Ms. Goldfrapp suddenly finds herself in the cabal of England's preciosity (guest stars include Adrian Utley of Portishead and PJ Harvey/16 Horsepower producer John Parish) this here is somebody who can take flügelhorns, whip-cracks, and cuckoo clocks and make 'em work together.
Sure, the view can get a bit dizzying at times (all that bracing alpine air and swelling stringwork), and Goldfrapp's vocal range blankets everything in sight like snow: She's loungey, cozy, childlike, and unsettling -- often simultaneously. She yodels and coos. She's sublime and delirious. And though 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 with a name like a fancy coffee drink.