Friday, May 08, 2009

Sweet Duality

Bat For Lashes - Two Suns (Echo, 2009)

At what point did Natasha Khan become a proper pop singer? Was it when ‘Fur and Gold’ received its deserved Mercury nomination? It certainly wasn’t her unfortunate support slot for Radiohead at Victoria Park, where she bravely (perhaps foolishly) debuted a wealth of new material and had to forfeit any audience support following a power failure. Perhaps unfairly, most people around me that day left with an impression of her as something of a third rate Bjork copyist. Yet now everyone seems rather infatuated with ‘Daniel’, this album’s sensual and evocative lead single.

Inevitably, I’m rather taken with it too. Its dreamy combination of atmospheric pads, pizzicato strings and infectious melody works well enough for me. Moreover, how could I resist a song which starts with the words ‘Daniel, when I first saw you, I knew you had a flame in your heart’. Why, thank you, Natasha! Oh, it’s about Daniel from Karate Kid? I see….Well, they say songs are what you make of them and it’s certainly a better song to take my name than Elton John’s insipid ballad.

This is not to give the impression that Khan’s lyrics are unproblematic though. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome with ‘Two Suns’, as with ‘Fur and Gold’ is that these mystical, fairytale narratives are mostly bobbins. Khan has taken a not-very-original dualities theme and reiterated it. Rather a lot. There are ‘two suns shining’, the dream of love ‘is a two hearted dream’, there’s ‘moon and moon’, later there are ‘two planets’. Well, you get the idea by now.

Those who can tolerate this along with all the magic realism will find much to enjoy here. Khan cleverly maintains a balance between warm synth pads that recall Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush with torch piano ballads that recall, well, early Kate Bush. This is probably already enough information to suggest that Khan has yet to establish herself as a true original (although the Bush comparison makes more sense now than the Bjork one here – she’s got little of Bjork’s interest in asymmetrical time or contemporary composition). Within her limitations, though, she manages to produce refreshingly exotic, involving music. The opening ‘Glass’ is particularly exciting, ushered in with bold drumming and a powerful vocal mixed well into the foreground.

Some tracks are a little too close to facsimiles of tracks from ‘Fur and Gold’. ‘Sleep Alone’ is more than a little like ‘Trophy’ with added electronica. Khan is definitely best here when she’s at her least predictable and when making the most of vocal arrangements. The combination of gospel chorus and folk strum on ‘Peace of Mind’ is enchanting, whilst the percussive, impressively textured ‘Pearl’s Dream’ is an undoubted highlight, a kind of yang to the yin to ‘Daniel’ (I can do the whole dualities thing too!). ‘Good Love’ benefits from an unexpected soulful streak, with its spoken section hinting back perhaps even to doo-wop.

There’s a warmth throughout ‘Two Suns’ that suggests Khan has been planning a bid for greater accessibility. It’s a conspicuous studio construction, with a pristine, crystalline sound. Scott Walker appears at the end to duet on 'The Big Sleep' and it's hard to see Khan producing anything as confrontational or demanding as 'Tilt' or 'The Drift', although she may yet make her 'Scott 4'. This is still artful pop music. At times it reminds me of those great early Eurythmics records (‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Touch’), before their production became too bland. The intoxicating sound is enough to make me forgive Khan her lyrical indulgences.

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