Most Americans haven’t heard of them, but in Britain, the press has spent the past year gushing over Goldfrapp, and rightly so. With their debut album Felt Mountain, songwriter-producer duo Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have created one of the most lushly orchestrated pieces of pop electronica in years. A romantic torrent of celestial synths, rich strings, and Alison’s coolly emotive voice, Felt Mountain plays like the soundtrack to some lost ’60s European spy thriller, something with lots of shots of blonde femme fatales lighting up cigarettes in the backseats of Mercedes taxicabs.
It’s no small feat to make an album as lavish as Felt Mountain, much less recreate its cinematic vibe in a club setting, but that’s what Goldfrapp have been attempting to do since they took their act on the road earlier this year. To be fair, they’d probably need a full orchestra do their sound justice, but at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles, they managed pretty well with just Goldfrapp’s voice, Gregory’s synths and a three-piece backing band.
After a solid but incongruous opening set by British emo rockers Elbow (whose churning guitars stood in direct contrast to Goldfrapp’s string and synth driven sound), Gregory and the band took the stage minus frontwoman Alison for an instrumental version of “Lovely Head”, Felt Mountain‘s opening track. Without Alison’s vocals, Goldfrapp’s music evokes elevators more than movie palaces, but the track served as a pleasant enough overture to the singer’s grand entrance. Looking nothing like her winsome publicity photos, Alison Goldfrapp strode out in a khaki-colored WAC uniform, complete with a World War II infantry cap jauntily cocked over her severely pinned back platinum blonde locks. The ultrahip Hollywood crowd got about as wild as it would all night at the sight of her, especially the male half — with her pale English country girl looks and piercing, ice queen blue eyes, she’s a charismatic, sultry frontwoman, and certainly a lot more fun to watch than the workmanlike Gregory and his equally frumpy bandmates. Only violinist Davide Rossi, goofily sporting a carnation-bedecked fedora like someone out of a German oompah band, added an extra dash of panache to the band’s stage presence.
The rest of Goldfrapp’s main set lasted barely 45 minutes, with perhaps another 15 minutes of encores. This might have been all Alison was good for — she was recovering from a bout of tonsillitis, and her voice definitely sounded huskier than usual in places, especially on the throaty chorus of “Human”. She began with Felt Mountain‘s harpsichord-driven second track, “Paper Bag”, which also featured her hamonizing nicely on melodica with Rossi’s weepy violin. Then came “Human”, and it began to look as if Goldfrapp’s set would just reproduce Felt Mountain track for track. Even the arrangements weren’t noticeably different, and suffered a bit from that Milli Vanilli syndrome to which all electronic-based acts are peril — “Human”, in particular, sounded so much like its album version, complete with melodramatic Bond theme horns and trancey synths, that it was easy to suspect Will Gregory of just playing pre-recorded tracks off a groove box. Then towards the end of the song, Rossi launched into a blistering solo that literally had smoke coming from his bow, and things were again sounding more live than Memorex.
After a sweetly pretty rendition of “Deer Stop”, the band reprised “Lovely Head”, this time with Alison’s smoky vocals and the most crowd-pleasing trick of the night, a vocoder mike that allowed Will Gregory to tweak her angelic croons into the howling synths that are the track’s signature sound. It was truly amazing, and a little eerie, to watch a diminutive woman in a military uniform belting out sounds you’d expect to hear from a UFO in a ’50s B-movie. For the next song, “Pilots”, Alison employed a third microphone that allowed to her to deliver the track’s celestial choir sound effects. Somehow the fact that this was mostly smoke and mirrors didn’t seem to matter — it was still electrifying to hear such otherwordly sounds seemingly coming from a human throat. I guess now I understand why the crowd goes so nuts for the talking guitar parts on Frampton Comes Alive.
After “Pilots”, Goldfrapp performed a new song called “Little Death”, an uptempo number with a fuller sound than anything on Felt Mountain. This and two new songs included in the encore set all happily suggest that the duo are both broadening their sonic palette and punching up the energy a little — “Little Death” featured some almost Indian-sounding synth drones and violin flourishes; “Knights of Fondue” was a lavishly pretty pop song on which Alison sounded warmer and earthier than usual; and “Sartorius” featured a long instrumental jam that built to a galloping climax and served as the evening’s finale. As a nice coda more typical of the Felt Mountain sound, the band returned for a second encore to perform the sparse, spooky “Horse Tears”.
The other encore song was “U.K. Girls (Physical)”, which is indeed a reworking of the Olivia Newton-John cheese classic. On disc the track works remarkably well, with Alison’s ultracool delivery undercuting the silliness of those infamous lyrics enough to make the song actually sound sexy. Live, however, it was a dud, as Alison’s delivery was neither deadpan or campy enough to cash in on the song’s corniness. It also highlighted Goldfrapp’s biggest shortcoming as performers, and my only major criticism of their show — all of them, especially Alison herself, seem to take themselves too seriously, even when they’re performing a cover of the ’80s’ biggest aerobics class anthem. Maybe they’ve decided that an aloof stage presence complements the cool detachment of their music, but to me it played only as stinginess — the crowd was clearly waiting for the band to give it up a little, but apart from a few scattered moments, calling their performance understated would be, well, an understatement.
The brightest exception to this was the closing song of their main set, “Utopia”, a swirling Bjork-like pop anthem that sports Goldfrapp’s catchiest chorus. For the first and only time all night, Alison uncorked her operatic upper register sans vocoder trickery, and the effect was electrifying — the room was immediately more energized than it had been all night, and the band seemed to respond, with drummer Rowan Oliver laying down a subtly propulsive beat and violinist Rossi providing some truly gorgeous accompaniment. “Utopia” is without a doubt Goldfrapp’s best song, and at the Knitting Factory it was the best example of what they’re capable of, both as live performers and as composers who know how to infuse a simple pop tune with the sweeping majesty of a great film score.
At the end of each encore, Alison Goldfrapp shyly and with obvious sincerity thanked the audience for their enthusiastic response. Maybe her aloofness on stage is actually just a product of nervousness — after all, this is a group that hasn’t been touring for very long, and their complex material can be a hard sell to a live audience, even an enthusiastic one like the crowd at the Knit. I still wish Alison and Will Gregory would loosen up a little, especially if they’re going to cover “Physical”, but stiffness aside, they gave a satisfying live show that, even if it failed to match the brilliance of their studio work, at least further suggested this remarkable duo’s potential. Maybe one day we will get to see a Goldfrapp tour with a full orchestra — now that would be pretty utopian.