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December 17, 2004
RATING: 8.5/10
The last yearning strains of "Pilots" had faded into the night sky above the London outdoor nightclub, Somerset House. Seemingly still enraptured by the smoky beauty of her group's breathtaking torch song, Goldfrapp singer and synth player Alison Goldfrapp wanders about on stage with a gleam in her eye, looks up and with unabashed glee asks, "Where are those stars, where's that moon?" She's not asking to see them; she's demanding that the celestial bodies show themselves. On an evening such as this one, in July of 2003, it is easy to believe that Goldfrapp has the power to make such demands. And if not, she can always get the group's lighting crew to do it for her.

The recently released 2xDVD set Wonderful Electric - Live In London not only captures this captivating performance from Goldfrapp, it also offers a November 2001 concert from Shepherd's Bush Empire that's just as transcendant. And if that's not enough, what do you say to not one, but two revealing documentaries? That's a lot of bang for your Goldfrapp buck.

The Shepherd's Bush Empire show makes up most of Disc 2, which also includes the "A Trip To Felt Mountain" interview. Set to images of snow-capped mountains and lush, verdant fields are brief fragments of commentary from Alison and her partner, Will Gregory, on the making of their first album, Felt Mountain. The visuals are stunning and the commentary offers just enough insight to make it worth your while. Talking about the song "Utopia", Alison offers a glimpse into what she was thinking when she wrote the lyrics, which touch on the increasingly divergent paths of man and machine.

In concert, Alison is a study in concentration. Dressed in a black outfit that looks almost like lingerie and illuminated by lights that seem to search her out, she stands stationary and grips her microphone with both hands, as if she's holding on to feelings that are gone forever, only she doesn't know it. Most of the set list draws from Felt Mountain, although it also includes the rarities "Sartorious" and "Little Death," which have never been released in any form anywhere, until now. Pouring out of Gregory's synthesizers are soaring, romantic epics like "Pilots" and cinematic soundscapes like "Utopia" or "Human" that could be theme songs for James Bond movies starring Nick Cave as the gentleman spy. Rippling vibes lend a shimmering quality to the haunting melody of "Deer Stop" and a string quartet fleshes out the arrangements, making them even richer and more full-bodied than they sound on record. Seductive and hypnotic, the Shepherd's Bush Empire show is almost a religious experience - that is except for a brief flirtation with Olivia Newton John's "(Let's Get) Physical", here known as "U.K. Girls (Physical)." In Goldfrapp's hands, the song sounds less like an invitation for anonymous sex and more like an emotional plea for physical contact that has some meaning.

Once bitten, Alison is far from shy on Black Cherry, Goldfrapp's second record. The vulnerable young girl that was seduced by predatory, sexual hunters has been replaced by a confident woman who is not afraid to take charge of her libido and impose its will on whomever she desires. On stage at Somerset House, Alison, looking like a glamorous stewardess from the 1940s on an airline that puts on two shows of Cabaret a day, grinds her hips to the Soft Cell-style synth bump-and-grind of "Twist." When she orders her lover to " ... put your dirty, angel face between my legs," she means business. The primal rhythms, electronic and otherwise, in "Strict Machine", a new take on Depeche Mode's synth S&M forays, lead Alison to take up a march for sexual conquest and control.

Proving, however, that you can take the girl out of Felt Mountain but you can't take Felt Mountain out of the girl, Alison and Gregory fall back on what they do best: seduce you with sensual melodies that waft through the air on magic carpets of strings and majestic synth lines. The aching title track to Black Cherry is bittersweet and full of longing, but when the confetti falls over the crowd, it feels almost like a celebration of life's troubles, not a shedding of crocodile tears. And that's the difference between the two shows: at Shepherd's Bush Empire, Goldfrapp mined the depths of human despair to strike a nerve long since numbed by experience, while the performance at Somerset House shows Alison, who unleashes vocal swells that fill the hall with pure tones, and Gregory as having come through it all stronger and more resilient.

In the accompanying documentary, "Twisted Summer", Alison says, when interviewed in the studio where Goldfrapp was recording B-sides, that when she played Black Cherry for her mother, she told Alison that her little girl sounded happy. Moms often have a unique perspective most reviewers can't hope to grasp. For her part, Alison describes Black Cherry with adjectives like "lilac," "glossy", "juicy" and both "dark" and "bright." And yes, it is all those things. But it's not nearly as triumphant as the Somerset House show.

Eschewing the string quartet, Goldfrapp strips down its sound to bring out a funkier, more flamboyant side they previously kept hidden, especially on "Human". Violinist Davide Rossi and Rowan Oliver, who doubles on drums and viola, give songs like the rouged whore that is "Deep Honey" and the haunting "Deer Stop" emotional heft and sweeping drama. And the light show, though subtle, effectively captures the sensual nature of Goldfrapp's music - and yes, Alison gets her stars, a multitude of round, white-gold shapes, on a screen that backs the band.

The advent of punk rock caused us all to rethink what it is that makes a rock concert great. Once upon a time, it was the feeling of community in a sweaty mosh pit and the sinewy arms of the crowd dragging the performer down to its level. Goldfrapp rises above all that, making art with things like colorful, darting lights and drifting smoke... things that punks would mock as self-indulgent and bloated with excess. I'm all for getting back to the simple things that make rock great, but there's nothing wrong with a little glitter, a little razzle dazzle. So long as Goldfrapp keeps delving into matters of the human heart and not a robot's control panel, such criticisms will get tossed out like litter. And Goldfrapp can't wait to take out the trash.

SEE ALSO: www.goldfrapp.co.uk

--
Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other articles by Peter Lindblad.

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