Goldfrapp has made its name on Weimar strangeness and sleek electro-minimalism, a combination that often bullies critics into labeling the band “avant-pop” or some such nonsense. It doesn’t hurt that the band’s singer Alison Goldfrapp has cultivated a kind of Ziggy Stardust-lite persona. Her collaboration with Will Gregory under the name Goldfrapp has been, over eight years and four albums, a good mix of cool, smart, zeitgeisty dance-pop and pleasant-enough ambient ballads. Alison Goldfrapp’s smoky alto really works best in such a mode, evoking a kind of mysterious, possibly sinister seductiveness. Seventh Tree largely eschews this electro-laden sound, so strong on 2003’s Gold Cherry and 2005’s Supernature, and instead opts for something closer to the band’s debut, 2000’s Felt Mountain. Where that album mainly trod soporific, cloudy chamber-synth-scapes — something like Air on downers — this one presents a suite of folk-centered tunes built on acoustic guitar hooks and awash in hazy keyboards, with hearty touches of French pop pastorality (strings are sighing, birds are tweeting), and nods to mellow-niks like the Cocteau Twins, 10cc or Shellyan Orphan (trivia!), though on the whole it sounds mostly like Kate Bush (a mixed blessing to be sure). Winding basslines and epic proggy drums add a kind note of complexity here and there (especially on lone upbeat number, the krauty ‘Caravan Girl,’ probably the best track on the album), but for the most part Seventh Tree fails to capture the soul with melody, instead attempting to rely on those soaring strings, on Alison Goldfrapp’s lazy croon and on the gauzy feel of the album art: soft-focus green countryside, clown costumes and kohl-rimmed eyes.
Goldfrapp and Gregory are clearly searching for something more sedate, more contemplative, that evokes mystery from open fields rather than from smoky dancefloors. ‘Eat Yourself’ in particular tries a kind of woodsy, tiny-speaker nostalgia trip, while ‘A&E’ builds on a bland guitar strum to a pretty rousing crescendo and the best lyricism on the album. Still, while production gets a bit soupy from time to time (likely thanks to co-producer Flood — that guy!), there are pleasant moments to be found. Let’s just hope the band can relocate its knack for melody before the next outing.