The ability to surprise. Not every artist possesses it. Many of those who obtain it can be insufficiently wasteful, ignorantly believing it’s all about taboo costumes, spontaneous selfies, mismatched collaborations and publicity scandals. Although Roísín Murphy has had a reputation for eccentric fashion, she is masterful at surprising audiences musically, whilst balancing this with her familiar idiosyncratic traits: an unmistakable bold and seductive voice, self-confident personality, amalgamations of funk and electronic twiddling and an analysis of her deteriorating relationships with fellow creatives. The origin of the unpredictable attribute comes from her roots with Mark Brydon in Sheffield-formed, occasionally undefinable and respected duo Moloko.
Working with the exploratory producer Matthew Herbert for her much celebrated debut and acousmatic solo album Ruby Blue, contributed greatly to this mentality. Personal possessions of hers (hairspray, alarm clock and ornaments) were used as original percussion and were accompanied by a rare instrument called the hammered dulcimer. Predictably biopic, it’s experimental and eclectic shape-shifting borrowed from 1920s jazz styles, Hammond organ, the tribal funk of Outkast, 70s Motown soul, boogie woogie, playful electricity, baroque stylings, avant-pop and remained unrestricted vocally. It fit the same wild, dissonant and disorientated category of Wildbirds and Peacedrums, The Dø and Anja Gabarek but was essentially incomparable. Her follow-up Overpowered, was a lot more patterned, uniformed and most importantly for some fans, it was dance-able, It focused on her love of colourful disco (and elements of ‘Uptown Funk’) with a contemporary framework. It was surprisingly accessible and noticeably Zeitgeist as a result of her problematical decision to hire numerous producers, all with their individual aim to create their own hit. In danger of driving too far down the pop path, Murphy sensibility took a seven year hiatus to focus on family and normalities. She came back with an EP of Italian-language covers Mi Senti to show her flamboyance and her third full length solo release Hairless Toys (produced by long time friend Eddie Stevens) is another unexpected surprise.
The two preceding albums created a division in the Murphy camp but you are more likely to be impressed if you’re in the Ruby Blue corner than in the vibrant Overpowered corner because, despite a few moments of energy, it exercises the cerebral muscles more often then the leg muscles.
Down tempo single “Exploitation” is immediately intoxicating with it’s meaningful double entendre lyrics about the music industry and the manipulations of love. Although it has a satirical aim, it’s empowering. Murphy’s voice is recognizable but toned down and calmer in it’s patient delivery. It whispers like Charlotte Gainsbourg, is serious, intellectual and deeply mature like Marianne Faithful and is spoken in the narrative structure of her early Moloko days. The epic length of the tracks is beneficial in creating progressive compositions. Perhaps Exploitation is a tad too long but it feels like a satisfying nocturnal journey, beginning with wayward warps and woodblock taps, evolving with mischievous piano, shakers and drastic techno lightning synths. The inclusion of funk guitar improvisation is a returning trademark, even if a little mismatched.
‘Gone Fishing’ is another song with a social commentary, being inspired by the 1990 film Paris is Burning and she takes a supportive stance on the revolutionary culture scene that the movie documents. Lines like “there’s no inclusion for stigmatize” and “close to abandonment” shows a departure from Murphy’s biographical lyrics into outward issues. Minimal and efficient with it’s drum machines, cheerful marimbas (also on ‘House of Glass’) and bopping platform game programming, it’s reminiscent of a track off Blur‘s latest album The Magic Whip. Although the uneasy feeling grown from the Shepard tones give it a darker edge. Rigid and tight ‘Evil Eyes’ develops into electric funk with a smooth Nile Rogers groove that’s become associated with Manchester’s Lonelady – minus the occasional punk habits – and is refreshing with it’s blasts of Erasure synth key pressing. The call-and-response with the backing vocals is also charmingly 80s r&b. The rhythm of ‘Uninvited Guest’ travels like David Bowie‘s ‘Ashes to Ashes‘ and bulging bass create the platform for the non lexical masculine mumbles, whistles and Roísín Murphy’s graceful semi-rapping, whilst a dream-like soul utopia glimmers in the bridge. It’s a song that could easily have been done in the same beat-boxing style featured on Overpowered.
Suddenly in ‘Exile’, she adopts a prom-like country-blues environment in her voice, piano, sorrowful guitar vibratos and doo-wops, that is remarkably mixed with electronic spontaneity: rickety propellers, snoring swirls and frog engines. ‘House on Glass’ has the trip-hop pace, art rock and spaciousness of Radiohead‘s Kid A, along with other elements of funk and post-dub-step as Murphy voice-holds spiritually. Title track Hairless Toys combines futuristic production with 90s grunge chords before experimenting into a euphoric jungle of dream pop and melodic choral expression a kin to Efterklang‘s “Illuminant.” The album ends appropriately with another intelligent brainchild of low b.p.m in the strong-minded ‘Unputdownable’: piano ambiance unusually mixed with Stevie Nicks-adult-contemporary acoustic folk and bongos.
Murphy offered us a warning on ‘Exploitation’: “never underestimate creative people and the depths they go”. It will be difficult, but next time we should try to be less gobsmacked.
Hairless Toys is released on 11th May 2015 through Play It Again Sam Records