AGAINST THE BACKDROP of the exploratory electronica that made the mid-to-late ‘90s so fascinating, Róisín Murphy’s Moloko hardly rated a second glance. Musically, they were way too glitterball and florid at a time when digital technology was unleashing its first torrent of audio excavators and sonic skywalkers. Besides, as electronic duos went, they were hardly Portishead.
Listening to Moloko now, they don’t come off so badly, but has Róisín Murphy got anything worthwhile to offer 2015? Her third solo album, Hairless Toys, suggests at least that in producer Eddie Stevens (who handles multiple instruments as well) she’s found a co-conspirator who is up to the challenge of interpreting her increasingly worldly wise lyrics and cold-as-ice singing style. Not that Stevens is new to Murphy’s world – he was part of the Moloko entourage and worked on her first two solo albums – but this time it’s his wide-screen musical vision that dominates. Or perhaps I’m just a sexist fucker, and the fact that Murphy’s stated sonic contribution (vocals) doesn’t mean that she didn’t compose or direct every single strand of music on the album.
Whatever the case, the sound design heads in a bold new direction, and it’s what makes Hairless Toys worth a listen on either a pair of headphones better than your standard Beats, or on a proper, you know… stereo.
Not surprisingly, Murphy has dropped her fruity croon for a much more intimate, sing-speak narration that sounds like she’s been listening to both Marlene Dietrich and Grace Jones, and it’s the kind of cool Jones countenance and sense of style that Murphy seems to have adapted to her own, more subtle ends. Like Jones, she’s infatuated with fashion, and seems unrepentant in her first-world obsessions.
Personally, I find her persona disengages me from the music, but if I concentrate on the music itself, then some satisfaction follows. There are only eight songs here, and extra length gives the best songs real room to breathe and evolve. ‘Gone Fishing’, for example, starts out spacious with a subdued noir atmosphere, but eventually, a clipped disco-funk rhythm breaks out as it slowly builds up to something that dedicated dance freaks could probably move their bodies to, albeit in a moody way. That clipped disco together with the way she sings against the beats, reminds me of Prince funksters, Wendy & Lisa, but shorn of their innate musicality and warmth.
The other real epic is ‘Exploitation’, which in the first minute has already moved through snippets of Soft Cell, Burundi drums and 808 State-style ambient techno, and over its nine minutes wraps an extremely sophisticated production around Murphy’s nagging narration about a sexually exploitative relationship where both sides might just be equals.
I just wish she’d gone for the epic treatment throughout, because the shorter tracks tend to dip in quality and inspiration. ‘Uninvited Guest’ starts out sounding like a Janet Jackson b-side, although the sugary ballad does admittedly get rolling as it goes with some deliciously deep bass action. The worst is ‘Exile’, which tries on a mutant country and western hat and suffers the consequences.
Had Hairless Toys gone for the jugular on a consistent set of epic noir-electronica, then it might have been a five-star spin. As it is, it’s an intriguing project with several flaws, but definitely one of the juiciest-sounding releases so far in 2015. GARY STEEL
Music = 3.5/5
Sound = 4.5/5