Róisín Murphy, “Hairless Toys”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #96 – released May 8, 2015)

Track listing: Gone Fishing / Evil Eyes / Exploitation / Uninvited Guest / Exile / House of Glass / Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt) / Unputdownable

After Overpowered failed to connect with a wider audience, Róisín Murphy seemed to be in no hurry to put out another album, even as Lady Gaga took its look and sound to the bank a year later. Instead, Murphy went on an extended hiatus: she became a mother (twice), occasionally surfaced as a guest vocalist (most notably on “Don’t You Agree” from the David Byrne/Fatboy Slim life-of-Imelda Marcos concept album Here Lies Love) and released a few alluringly titled one-off singles of her own (“Orally Fixated”, “Simulation”.) Mi Senti, an EP of Italian-language songs, appeared in 2014; the stylistic range across its six tracks spoke to her inclination to experiment and defy expectations, but it was only a mere inkling of what was to come when her next album finally arrived a year later.

Hairless Toys decidedly does not pick up where Overpowered left off; nothing on it is as radio-friendly as “You Know Me Better” or as danceable as “Movie Star”. Its eight tracks sprawl across fifty minutes with most of them hovering around six. When first single and opener “Gone Fishing” dropped a few months before the album’s release, I did not know exactly what to make of it. Murphy’s submerged yet steady vocals fluttered in, out and all around a collage of mechanical beats and synths, all of it layered as to feel peculiar but not entirely off-putting. With lyrics inspired by Paris Is Burning, a documentary about New York City drag culture in the late ’80s (she refers to “The children of LaBeija”, meaning the “house” of performer Pepper LaBeija), Murphy fashions a paean “to building another kind of family nest” for all those stigmatized by their own blood relatives (though the song title remains either a mystery or a pretty obscure reference.) Verse after verse, it percolates on, its hooks not reaching out to hug the listener but creeping along the sidelines, only to occasionally, suddenly, ever-so-briefly emerge before retreating back into the ether.

While certainly more cerebral than anything before it in Murphy’s discography, Hairless Toys is still, at its core, comprised of pop songs—leisurely-paced, heady, at times quixotic pop songs, but ones still sporting hummable melodies and verse/chorus/verse structures. Following “Gone Fishing”, “Evil Eyes” is a slightly sharper entry point for unassuming listeners. An introductory electronic bassline/heartbeat remains a constant throughout, its irresistible strut a solid foundation for Murphy’s dreamily gliding vocals on top (“ho…cus…. / ho-cus, po…..cus….”). It plays like slow-motion disco-funk, graceful but also tense enough that it’s genuinely thrilling when it hits that key change at the bridge at 4:27 and Murphy snaps to attention: “Gonna put those demons in their place!,” she exclaims, as a call-and-response with the phrase, “Get to know them!” (See the song’s bonkers music video below, and in particular, how she chose to visualize this part.)

“Exploitation” clocks in at nearly nine-and-a-half minutes and was still chosen as the album’s second single (albeit in a four-minute edit.) Kicking off with a boisterous, galloping, thirty-second-long synth-and-percussion fanfare, it deftly settles into a subdued thump-a-thon driven by a repeated three-note hook. “Never… underestimate / creative people / and the depths that they will go,” Murphy sings, again forever wafting through a scurrying beat, pausing to ponder the question, “I just don’t know who’s / who’s exploiting who?” in the chorus. The album version’s back half is entirely instrumental, shifting from house music to straight-up trance, the melody gradually dissolving into abstraction over a series of seemingly endless piano chords and electronic noise. Weird as it may be to some (most?), it’s less a line drawn in the sand than Murphy asking her listeners, “Why separate art from pop? Why can’t they co-exist?”

It’s a question Hairless Toys returns to often without making excuses or really any concessions for either side. Combining fat, heavy synth bass with flowery do-do-do’s over what roughly amounts to supper-club funk, “Uninvited Guest” is one of the album’s most playful tracks, particularly in its baritone “whoah, whoah, whoah’s” in the chorus’ background and its cheerful whistling hook; it also transforms into one of the most gorgeous songs here when, at the three-minute-mark, the backbeat suddenly vanishes and an extended bridge unfolds with luxuriant chord changes and lush layers of guitars and multi-tracked vocals, growing more impossibly lovely until the beat resumes a minute-and-a-half later.

“Exile” is arguably even more unexpected a left turn than the back half of “Exploitation”. An honest-to-god, morning-after torch song heavy with twangy guitar, reverb, a little pedal steel and briefly, an eerie, gurgling, horror-film synth noise, it resembles a country death song for a David Lynch film with Murphy speak-singing most of the lyrics rather than sounding off like a siren. And yet, it’s also the most traditional, straightforward tune here (also the shortest at four minutes.) Like much of Hairless Toys, it greatly benefits from extra space to breathe and further ponder one’s surroundings while also both paying homage to and completely subverting an entire musical genre.

While shorter than “Exploitation” by over two minutes, “House of Glass” is almost its mirror image: disclosing its most blatant hook right away, it still sounds tentative at first, a somewhat wispy tone poem. Thankfully, it builds up rather than drifts further apart, becoming danceable midway through. Murphy’s vocals alternately peacefully float through the air (“People / who live / in / glassssss / hou-sesssss”) and cut it like a fine blade (rapidly singing, “Little pieces of a broken dream / Scattered in a million different places.”) Layers accumulate as everything proceeds, from guitar riffs and electro-xylophone runs to drunken, elongated “loo / loo / loo” vocals. The pressure builds, but deliberately, it never really climaxes.

On another album, “Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)” could be a delicate, heartrending ballad, its two chords gracefully buoyed by an acoustic piano or string quartet; here, its simplistic melody merely serves as a skeleton for an atmospheric wash of ebbing-and-flowing synths and various electronic textures, as Murphy’s vocals become less of a focal point and more just another element in the cavernous mix. As for that inscrutable title (what the hell is a “Hairless Toy”?), producer Eddie Stevens supposedly mistakenly heard those words instead of the song’s original title, “Careless Talk”. In a typically quirky Murphy move, it just stuck for both the song and the entire album.

Leave it to Murphy to also place her best song here at the very end. In great contrast to the preceding track, “Unputdownable” is, at the onset, pretty spare—just tambourine, Murphy’s vocal and a repeated, ascending eight-note piano hook. “You are my favorite book,” she sings, and proceeds with a series of clever reading-as-love metaphors: “You’re unputdownable / a story so confounding / the pages turn so easily,” and “I’m fully occupied / reading between the lines.” Sparse synth blips and bleeps materialize throughout, but there’s also an effective silent pause before a dramatic Spanish guitar strum transforms the entire song at its bridge and Murphy thrillingly wails, “Well, I’m left in confusion / by your epilogue.” This occurs again at the song’s climax and if anything, the out-of-nowhere guitar’s even further heightened by the introduction of a backbeat, some cowbell and a tart synth that together transform this into a glorious anthem: “If you’d allow me / to read your mind,” she sings, repeating those last four words over and over as “Unputdownable” simmers to a satisfying yet lingering close.

Rather than coasting on her past successes (and failures) as a member of Moloko and as a solo artist, Murphy chose to emerge from her hiatus with a leap into the unknown. Sure, one can detect isolated bits and pieces of Hairless Toys across her prior discography (parts of “Uninvited Guest” could easily slot into 2005’s Ruby Blue); strung together, however, they’re revelatory, collectively pushing the boundaries of what one could expect from her and, for that matter, of dance-pop in general. If 2016’s Take Her Up To Monto (culled from the same sessions as Hairless Toys) pushed them even further (occasionally to its detriment), her subsequent work with producer Maurice Fulton found a way to render her music as both fresh and familiar—particularly his radical remix of “House of Glass”, which turned it into a lucid slap-bass odyssey Alexander O’Neal could’ve sung in 1987. Releasing four 12-inch singles with Fulton in lieu of another LP in 2018, Murphy remains an iconoclast and, more than two decades into her career, still an artist to watch.

Up next: Post-modern, post-genre, post-gender, post-?

“Unputdownable”:

“Evil Eyes”:

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Róisín Murphy, “Overpowered”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #87 – released October 11, 2007)

Track listing: Overpowered / You Know Me Better / Checkin’ On Me / Let Me Know / Movie Star / Primitive / Footprints / Dear Miami / Cry Baby / Tell Everybody / Scarlet Ribbons / Body Language / Parallel Lives

Although she’s crafted an enviable discography over the past few decades, to most, Róisín Murphy remains buried treasure crying out for excavation. Born in Ireland and having spent her teenage years in Manchester, England, she first found fame as the vocalist of Moloko, a dance duo she formed with romantic partner Mark Brydon in 1995. Early songs like “Fun For Me” (whose video actually got a few spins on MTV’s 120 Minutes) had them initially lumped in with other UK female-fronted trip-hop acts such as Morcheeba, Portishead and Sneaker Pimps; in time, they were scoring huge fin de siècle Euro-hits like “Sing It Back” and “The Time is Now” while barely making an imprint in the US (hard to do when your albums (apart from your debut) don’t even get released there.)

Brydon and Murphy split both personally and professionally after their fourth album, 2003’s Statutes—its ambitious sweep yet fine-honed pop-sense revealed how much their music had blossomed in just under a decade. Rather than logically craft a dance floor-ready follow-up, Murphy worked with experimental producer Matthew Herbert on her solo debut, Ruby Blue (2005). Herbert’s sample-heavy technique, where found sounds such as a whirring blender or a clinking bottle are as much a part of the mix as traditional instruments, was pushed to the fore; Murphy welcomed it with open arms, devising songs both relatively user-friendly (“Through Time”) and Kate Bush-level bonkers (“Ramalama Bang Bang”, which ended up becoming Murphy’s most heard song in the States when it accompanied a performance on the reality-TV competition show So You Think You Can Dance?)

For solo album # 2, Murphy moved from indie label Echo Records to major conglomerate EMI and made what is still to-date her most accessible, pop-friendly record, Overpowered. Of course, even at her most straightforward, Murphy can’t help but exude otherness (if you have any doubts, take another look at that album cover.) After a brief preview of its chorus hook (“When I think that I am over you, I’m overpowered”), the title track opens with the words, “Your data my data / the chromosomes match” robotically sung over a bed of squishy synths (I always thought it was “You’re dating my daughter,” which I kinda prefer.) Cerebral lyrical content (“These amaranth feelings / a cognitive state”) mash together with the overtly sensual music (harp glissandos dancing on top of the more grounded electronics; a five-note Yaz-worthy hook repeated throughout.) It’s catchy and confined, yet also teeming with negative space provided by its airy melody and minute-plus instrumental coda.

From there, Murphy reels out one relatively concise, disco-flavored dance-pop gem after another. “You Know Me Better” is as effervescent as early Madonna but with stronger vocals, an excess of hooks (like that recurring tinkling piano) and unstoppable momentum. “Checkin’ On Me” jumps forward a few years to circa-1990 mid-tempo, Lisa Stansfield-esque, blue-eyed Philly soul: her precise syncopation with the song’s jazz-funk rhythm lends it shape and verve while never, um, overpowering the arrangement’s irresistible horn-and-string interjections. “Let Me Know” tricks you into believing it’s a languorous piano ballad before the synth-beat kicks in at the thirty-second mark, transforming it into something worthy of Donna Summer circa Bad Girls.

Having established her pop-star credentials in just four songs (all of which were singles except for “Checkin’ On Me”), Murphy spends the rest of Overpowered slyly expanding what her definition of pop can contain and acknowledge. “Movie Star” goes for wall-of-sound-banger-grandeur, building almost an entire song out of a simple, incessant, some-might-say-relentless two-note analog synth hook over which, Alison Goldfrapp-like, she coos lyrics such as, “You’ll be director / and I’ll be your movie star.” “Footprints” pays loving homage to ’80s Latin freestyle and R&B but not in an obvious, cut-and-paste way; rather, she puts her own spin on it, especially whenever she recites the line, “It drives me crazy when you play these games,” in a near-bratty tone. “Dear Miami” sustains the electro-Latin influence, her reverb-enhanced vocals floating all over the mix, which one could almost call hazy or fuzzed-out if not for the itchy pulse of the keyboards or distorted guitars forever lurking in the background. “Tell Everybody” gets its oomph from a rhythm track heavy with onomatopoeic vocal effects (a hallmark of its producer, Jimmy Douglass), which is enough to hold interest until Murphy gets to the brash, triumphant chorus, where the melody opens up and the song’s working parts gel into a massive whole.

Although Overpowered features multiple producers and collaborators, Douglass’ work arguably bears the sweetest fruit. In addition to “Tell Everybody” and “Checkin’ On Me”, he also produced album highlight “Primitive”. Coming directly after the all-encompassing “Movie Star”, it allows the listener some breathing space with its minimal synth, drum machine and sampled, single-vocal-syllable foundation. “From the primordial soup / out of the dim and the gloom we came,” Murphy begins, before declaring, “We are animals” in a decidedly more forceful way than Olivia Newton-John did at the climax of “Physical”. However, it’s merely build-up for the glorious chorus where Murphy pleads, “I just want to get you out of your cave, man!” On the page, the lyric reads as a silly pun, but when she sings it, loudly, almost scarily, even, you immediately comprehend that any dismissal would be futile. You could call Murphy a vamp, a seductress, a confidant, a co-conspirator, but no matter what each song requires her to get across, she’s always frighteningly convincing.

Apart from “Cry Baby”, a monochromatic, nearly six-minute riff on what she already perfected on “Movie Star”, Overpowered is Murphy’s best album by fiat of being filler-free, and that includes its most atypical track. “Scarlet Ribbons”, the album’s original finale, is a bass-heavy, Sade-like slow dance ballad. Although Murphy nearly overplays her hand with potentially sappy father-daughter lyrics (e.g., “I’ll always be your little girl”), her ease and apparent vulnerability keep things in check. Most editions of Overpowered also contain two bonus tracks; they’re inessential but are not are exactly filler, either. “Body Language” gets considerable mileage out of its motor-disco beat, while “Parallel Lives” has a conveyor-belt rhythm track that complements its tart, soulful melody quite nicely.

Despite its major-label push, inventive music videos and hooks aplenty, Overpowered still sold less than 75,000 copies in the UK and never even received a formal US release (I remember having to buy it as an import on Amazon.) Its failure to connect is somewhat astonishing when within two years, Lady Gaga would become the biggest pop star in the world with an awfully similar visual aesthetic and songs that could’ve been carbon copies of “Movie Star”. Not to completely disparage Gaga’s 2009-11 run of iconic singles, but I can easily imagine an alternate universe where “Let Me Know” and “You Know Me Better” were as ubiquitous as “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance”.

I think the reason for Gaga’s and Murphy’s commercially divergent paths comes down to this: whereas Gaga painted and explicitly marketed herself as an “eccentric”, Murphy, crazy costumes aside, was more the real deal—a perpetual weirdo who didn’t need to call one of her albums Artpop to fully inhabit and commit to both halves of that compound description. While Gaga would conquer the pop charts over the next few years, Murphy almost entirely disappeared from the industry. We’ll return to her when she returns: on her own terms, and with something completely different.

Up next: Burn it all to the ground.

“Primitive”:

“Overpowered”:

Favorite Albums of 2015

My Top Ten (click on titles for more commentary):

1. Róisín Murphy, Hairless Toys
2. Marina and The Diamonds, Froot
3. FFS, FFS
4. Calexico, Edge Of The Sun
5. Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
6. Belle and Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
7. Laura Marling, Short Movie
8. Robert Forster, Songs To Play
9. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
10. Courtney Barnett, Sometime I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

Honorable Mentions

My Spotify playlist, containing selections from my top ten albums and fifteen others.

1. Róisín Murphy, “Hairless Toys”

hairless toys

Róisín Murphy found fame and notoriety (in Europe, at least) as one half of ‘90s trip-hop duo Moloko. Solo, she released two albums in the mid-2000’s: a song from the first appeared on an episode of So You Think You Can Dance, while the second provided a visual template Lady Gaga would later sneakily take to the bank. Over the past eight years, she’s put out a number of singles and EPs, including one entirely of Italian-language songs. And, all of this is a long way of saying that none of it quite prepared me for her third album, an art-pop song cycle about identity, persuasion, desire, behavior and love (among other things).

Whereas her last album, Overpowered, was the straightest (for her), most immediate pop she ever recorded (it bombed commercially anyway), Hairless Toys makes little effort to appear radio-friendly. Its eight tracks clock in at an average of six minutes each, with the trancelike “Exploitation” extending to over nine. Opener “Gone Fishing” meditates on the classic drag/vogue documentary Paris Is Burning, while woozy, warped electro-country lament “Exile” should definitely be considered as soundtrack fodder for the Twin Peaks revival. Heady, dense, quiet, contained, enigmatic—it’s no wonder this album has mostly fallen under the radar.

Still, by not confining herself to usual three-minute pop song structures, Murphy gives these tunes some much-needed room to breathe. Sublime passages emerge all over the place, like the extended, lush breakdown where the percussion drops out of “Uninvited Guest”, or the jazzy guitar runs that color and lend shape to “House of Glass”, or the neat, beguiling way the music seems to unpredictably contract and expand throughout the title track. The closest she comes to a straightforward love song is closer “Unputdownable”, which wraps a clever reading metaphor around a gently skittering mass of minimalist piano and beats only to all suddenly drop out twice for lone Spanish guitar chords that startle like a breathtaking mountain range or cityscape suddenly emerging out of the darkness. Although often challenging and occasionally inscrutable, Hairless Toys is packed with unexpected moments like these that are more compelling and original than anything else I heard this year.

Favorite tracks: “Gone Fishing”, “Evil Eyes”, “Uninvited Guest”, “Exile”, “Unputdownable”

“Unputdownable”:

 

“Gone Fishing”:

Halfway Through 2015: Albums

 

My ten favorite albums of 2015, so far, in alphabetical order. A few weeks ago, I suggested that some of these could easily place on my best-of-decade list; in any case, the last six months have been flush with excellent new releases, most of them expected, a few not–who knew Sufjan Stevens would come back from the ridiculous The Age of Adz with the return-to-his-folk-roots I’ve waited a decade for? Or that Saint Etienne’s vocalist would put out another solo album (18 years after the last one)? Or that, after an eight-year break, Róisín Murphy would record her best work yet–a shimmering, gorgeous yet strange song cycle whose themes I’m still in the process of deciphering? As you can see above in the video for “Evil Eyes”, she’s as delightfully bonkers as ever.

Belle and Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance
Calexico, Edge of the Sun
Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear
Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?
Laura Marling, Short Movie
Róisín Murphy, Hairless Toys
Sarah Cracknell, Red Kite
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell