Nothing tastes better to Judge Bill Gibron on a hot summer day than an ice-cold Goldfrapp with a wedge of lime.
"I'm wired to the world
Ever since Suicide made the notion of a keyboardist / singer combo viable, pop music has had a series of sensational pairings. David Ball and Marc Almond turned a tired old hit from the '60s into a New Wave anthem as Soft Cell (the now overplayed paean? "Tainted Love," of course), while still making music of startling originality. Andy Bell and Vince Clarke combined camp with creativity to turn Erasure into a striking sentimental favorite, a melancholy mix of dance and desire. And who could forget the fabulous Pet Shop Boys, a classic combination of lyrical brains and melodic brawn that more or less redefined the limits of pop music.
Yet with the rise of the producer-DJ as a part of the instrumental hierarchy, there has been an explosion in the number and nuance of wonderfully dynamic duos. Groups like Moloko, Air, Mouse on Mars, and The Chemical Brothers (just to name a few) have spent the last dozen years or so spreading the message of mixing and mood to audiences worldwide. Sadly, the United States, caught up in an irreversible hip-hop rap trap, has ignored most of this movement, preferring the urban beats to the techno blips being proffered by the world's artists. In the last couple of years, Goldfrapp have made a massive name for themselves, releasing two albums, a series of well-received singles and EPs, and now a two-disc live concert DVD. Goldfrapp: Wonderful Electric—Live in London is indeed an eye- and ear-opening experience. It proves that not all electronica is bathed in bass and drum. Indeed, this group deviates enough from the norm to make their take on the technological completely approachable.
Still, Goldfrapp makes music that is hard to define. Many of their songs recall the lost soundtrack to an eerie Gothic romance, or a mysterious noirish thriller. Their instrumentation runs the gamut from obscure electronic noises to a quartet of violins. And unlike other techno-oriented acts (or groups that can at least trace their origins to the rise in electronica over the last decade), their tunes don't march to the same old manic beat. Instead, they shuffle and sway, caught up in the drama and the atmosphere of an ethereal, esoteric ideal. This means that Goldfrapp are a band better suited to headphones than parties, a group determined to win you over emotionally and ephemerally than with their dance-trance positions.
Goldfrapp: Wonderful Electric—Live in London is an exciting concert memento for any fans of the band. Presenting two complete shows, filmed two years apart, it is possible to witness the group go from overnight sensations to settled artists within the span of a single digital presentation. Though they are offered in reverse order, one would be better served by watching Disc Two (Shepherd's Bush Empire) first. The straight-ahead presentation there will then stand in sharp contrast to the far more theatrical work of Disc One (Somerset House). While both set lists cover much of the same ground, the dynamic is different enough for each to supply its own idiosyncratic delights. The songs performed as part of each show are as follows:
Disc One: Live at Somerset House, July 2003
• "Deep Honey": from the album Black Cherry
Disc Two: Live at Shepherd's Bush Empire, November 2001
• "Paper Bag": from Felt Mountain
There is a benefit and a detriment to releasing these two concerts as part of one DVD package, a pro and con that go to the very heart of Goldfrapp's value as musicians. On the plus side, you get to hear almost all of their original material in a performance setting, a boon for any devotee looking to see their beloved stars live. For others, it will be a chance to become enraptured with the band's strikingly theatrical sound and sense of ambient wonder. But since both shows are so similar in content, and Goldfrapp make no bones about meticulously recreating their sound on stage, after two hours of intent listening, you'll feel a startling sense of deja vu. While the songs are wholly singular (for the most part), the approach is very familiar: eerily exotic strings rising and falling over long, brooding keyboard chords; melodies full of dips and trills swirl and dive through a range of emotions; treated drums and various percussives keep a steady beat as a hypnotic bassline curls around each chorus and verse. Add in Allison Goldfrapp's pleasing (occasionally "altered") vocals, singing reminiscent of the sound of angels sighing, and you've got a potent combination of eccentric aspects just waiting to make their own unique tuneful statement.
The result is appealing and apoplectic at the same time. You keep waiting for Goldfrapp to break loose, to turn their back on the preplanned facets that got them to the top and just let their mighty muse really fly free. While the "jam" is more or less unheard of in electronica (the repetition of riffs and the building of endless layers with samples and sounds is their answer to improvisation), it still would be nice to see the band expand their repertoire, to fill out their performances with an approach that feeds off and broadens their basics. Instead, Wonderful Electric is just painstakingly reproduced live versions of songs that sound virtually identical on CD. If you can get around this routine mimicry mentality, you'll adore this DVD.
Another hurdle to conquer is the faceless nature of the group. Alison is a front woman in concept only, a nice, normal presence singing her pretty tunes in a perfectly professional manner. She has an aura of allure to her, as well as a varying vulnerability that comes across in close-ups, but it's hard to imagine that this is evident in a stadium or amphitheater setting. The rest of the group—including the other half of the duo proper, keyboardist Will Gregory—might as well be a backing track. They are proficient and almost invisible behind their instruments, with only a zoom in of a lens allowing us to see the effort required to pull off the complicated arrangements. Even when a song starts to sizzle and percolate, the band remains steadfast in their desire to be dull. Kraftwerk's tour by articulated mannequins has more liveliness than Goldfrapp's concert presentation. If you're hoping to be moved by a mesmerizing live performance, you will only get the aural half of such excitement here.
Still, these are good shows—well played, musically mystical, and accessible to almost anyone. Goldfrapp's songs tend to wander and waltz instead of throb and bob, but the change in tone and temperament from the rest of the techno types really works for this group. You will be haunted by what you hear here, finding yourself lost in the aural mist being spread by the instrumental ease of the players. Alison, switching wildly between different mics (for the various vocal effects) and playing a wide range of weird instruments, including something that resembles a handheld theremin, commands center stage, using an almost too sly body language to sell each song. Add in the open, spatial quality to the music, and Goldfrapp occasionally overcomes the limits of their tunes to transcend the moment and sweep us off our drowsy duff. While people familiar with the band will sing its praises, this DVD can leave a non-fan feeling kind of cold. Goldfrapp are an evocative, inventive act. But sometimes their music belies that fact.
From a technical standpoint, Goldfrapp: Wonderful Electric—Live in London is a fabulous digital presentation…well, at least 50% of the time. Disc One contains a marvelous 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that has excellent color correction, lots of vivid detail, and a nice live concert feel. The expert cinematography captures the action well, and there is a real ambiance of performance in this piece. On the down side, Disc Two offers a 1.33:1 full screen transfer that is murky, full of pixelation, and rather dark. True, this show uses a much more moody, shadowy stage presentation, but the lack of detail and the occasional gray rain is irritating. On the sound side, Goldfrapp gives you a choice for either show—regular old PCM Stereo or 5.1 (Dolby Digital is listed nowhere in the credits). While the PCM is fine, the 5.1 opens up the dynamics to mimic full rock show mode. You will actually get a sense of being in the crowd as Goldfrapp do their delightful drowse.
In the area of bonuses, each disc contains a single salvo. Disc Two offers a well-meaning interview clip called "A Trip to Felt Mountain." Basically describing the process of recording the similarly named album, it is heavy on landscape shots and light on details. Much, much better is "Twisted Summer," an extended documentary about the Black Cherry tour. We gain a great deal of insight into what it takes to mount such an extravaganza, as well as the day-to-day routine of a band on the road. Together, they present two sides of Goldfrapp: the clever, considered artists, and the hardworking traveling show.
Concerts either fall into one of two categories—movies that stand for more than just the music, and a virtual recreation of the stage show, warts and all. Goldfrapp: Wonderful Electric—Live in London, is seemingly stuck in the middle. While the sounds lift us up into dimensions beyond the echo, the staging is little more than a routine recreation. If given a chance, you may find something to love about this likable electronic duo. While they aren't the most vibrant live act in the techno realm, they still make some mighty sweet noises.
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• Documentary: "Twisted Summer"
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