eyelights: the hypnotic quality of the music. Allison Goldfrapp’s versatility and enigmatic quality.
eyesores: the lo-fi quality of the video.
I nearly missed the boat on Goldfrapp: Early on in their career, some 15 years ago, I heard whispers about the duo. I knew nothing about them but, when a local second-hand store happened to carry their 2003 album, ‘Black Cherry’, I jumped all over it; I absolutely love to pick up cheap CDs to discover new artists!
But ‘Black Cherry’ left me unfulfilled: Few of the songs truly grabbed my attention and its brand of electronica didn’t tease my ear. I was pretty much ready to write Goldfrapp off, but that same store eventually received their debut album, ‘Felt Mountain‘. Since it cost me barely nothing, I decided to give them another chance.
Good thing I did: It was one of my favourite albums that year! And though through the years I’ve picked up all their subsequent efforts and none matched its hypnotic, melancholic beauty, I’m very glad that ‘Felt Mountain’ opened my doors of perception to let Goldfrapp in – every now and then, they do something sublime.
‘Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire’ is a recording of the second of two shows that Goldfrapp held at the legendary London music hall on December 3+4, 2001, and was the final date on the ‘Felt Mountain’ tour. The 53-minute production was released as part of a two-DVD, two-concert set called ‘Wonderful Electric’ in 2004.
It finds the duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory on a simple stage brightened by speckles of light that emulate a starry night, and accompanied by a full backing band, including a number of strings and percussions. Awash in blue light and smoke, Goldfrapp took center stage while Gregory was slightly to her left.
The show began with some violin plucking, followed by harpsichord and bass, as the band swept into “Paper Bag”, the first song of the night. While the slow, ballady, number isn’t the duo’s most compelling track, the military drum beats and psychedelic soundscapes ushered us into the night’s performance beautifully.
The show perked up immediately with “Human” with its Latin rhythms and swirls of strings; it’s very dramatic, sounding vaguely like a James Bond movie theme, and building to a crescendo. It was immediately followed by “Deer Stop”, a complete counterpoint, a melancholy piece that consists of soft piano and strings.
Then came the most surprising number of the night with “Lovely Head”, which begins with whistles and strings before kicking into a mambo groove with harpsichord: eschewing her smokey voice, Alison Goldfrapp spent large instrumental sections vocalizing in a separate microphone, making herself sound vaguely like a keyboard.
It was so unusual to watch, because she was putting all her heart into it, but you would never have known it by just listening to an audio recording. She used the same technique at the opening of “Pilots”, during the chorus of “Felt Mountain” and in the closing segment of “Horse Tears”. I enjoy the versatility of her vocals.
But my favourite part of the show was the band’s performance of “Utopia”, which is my favourite track of their: Its mix of Asian-sounding string-plucking, nearly-operatic vocals, and sexy groove, as well as the extended instrumental passage at the end make for an extremely engaging piece, filled with hooks and an utterly addictive atmosphere.
I’m also quite fond of “Horse Tears”, their encore, which consists of slow plodding piano, psychedelic waves and instrumental vocals; it’s deeply melancholic and hypnotic. I also rather enjoyed “Little Death”, with its Mid-Eastern touches, tribal rhythm and electronic distortions. It has an amazing, deeply engrossing groove.
By far my least favourite track was “U.K. Girls (Physical)”. It’s not even remotely the performance, which is fine, it’s just that I don’t at all like their interpolation of Olivvia Newton-John’s “Physical”, which is slowed down here and feels completely neutered. I don’t even like their studio version or the many remixes of it.
Midway through the show, the lights changed to spin the “stars” across the stage, and later a variety of coloured lights were used to change the mood. But otherwise the show was a low-budget production, putting all of its money into the backing band above all else. Despite this, it’s an utterly captivating and entrancing affair.
Alison Goldfrapp maintained a fairly mysterious aura throughout the show, hugging the mic in a claw-like clasp and letting go only when the rest of the band led the proceedings. Her blonde mane draping her face like a waterfall, wrapped in a black top with furry shoulder-pads and a translucent black skirt, she made quite an impression.
While the rest of the band remained fairly still, and suitably so for the genre, she switched things up by playing various instruments, including a melodica during “Paper Bag”, a small keyboard, or the aforementioned distorted mics. This kept her much more involved in light of the instrumental aspect of their set.
It was a terrific performance and a wonder show to experience.
Here is the full setlist:
1. Paper Bag 7.75
2. Human 8.0
3. Deer Stop 7.75
4. Lovely Head 8.0
5. Pilots 8.0
6. Little Death 8.25
7. Felt Mountain 8.0
8. Utopia 9.0
9. U.K. Girls (Physical) 6.5
10. Sartorius 8.0
11. Horse Tears 8.5
The DVD is bolstered by “A Trip to Felt Mountain”, which is basically a seemingly homemade 7-minute EPK that largely consists of music with pretty shots of nature. There are also soundbites of Goldfrapp talking about their inspirations, the making of the album, and the meaning of “Utopia” (complete with clips from the video).
The EPK serves its purpose, but it’s not particularly insightful.
Still, overall, ‘Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire’ was a terrific DVD. Why this wasn’t released on its own is beyond me because it’s such a fantastic document of the Goldfrapp’s early days, when the band were enigmatic and beguiling. As they morph through the years, they always remain fascinating, but nothing can overshadow “Felt Mountain”.
This show is proof positive of that.
Date of viewing: May 6, 2016