BAT FOR LASHES: FUR AND GOLD (2006)
Fur. Gold. Bats. Lashes. Wizards. Coats of armor. A girl called Natasha Khan, born and raised in London, UK. Wearing outfits that are one-third medieval Europe, one-third medieval Middle East, and one-third Narnia. All I can say is — we've come a friggin' long way from the world of elementary particles, or even prokaryotes.
Approaching this from another end, these days it takes real skill and strength on the part of a young pretty girl to choose her own way when so many not very good people are getting paid to choose it for her. It is obvious that Natasha Khan is not marketed — no sane marketologist would ever want to market her that way — and it is nice to know that this did not stop her from achieving not only critical, but also popular success.
It is also reassuring that approximately 40% of the people, upon listening to Fur And Gold, dismiss or adore her for being a total Björk rip-off, and 40% more condemn or praise her as the latest in a series of Kate Bush wannabes. The remaining 20% draw comparisons to Tori Amos, Joanna Newsom, Sinead O'Connor, Siouxsie Sioux, Imogen Heap, and Fiona Apple; to all of these ladies, digging a little deeper, I could personally add a bit of Grace Slick and a lot of Stevie Nicks. Bottomline: Miss Khan is an autonomous artist in her own right, not capable of coming up with a completely unique, «where-the-hell-did-this-shit-come-from» style — but, in 2006, who in the whole wide world, really is? — but doing the next best thing: adding a drop of her unrepeatable self into a big, boiling synthesis of influences that may reach all the way down to Billie Holiday and Jim Morrison and then stretch all the way up to Radiohead.
Fur And Gold is an odd album, not because it is so self-consciously «odd», but because it's odd that I don't hate it when I'm really supposed to. Natasha can sing — but no better or worse than many other girls, and there are no particularly stunning qualities to her voice. She can play, presenting herself as a multi-instrumentalist — but no better or worse than anyone with a musical school degree, and her melodies are competent, but never too complex (she quotes Steve Reich as one of her influences, but something tells me she chooses minimalist patterns for her compositions not purely as an artistic choice).
And her fetish? Somber surrealism. The first lines you hear are "Got woken in the night / By a mystic golden light", and it is not going to get much better. The case defines «classic»: bright, introvert kid, misunderstood and mistreated by peers (allegedly, she used to skip class all the time because of racist issues connected with her Pakistani heritage), retreating into fantasy worlds for comfort, and now, years later, opening these fantasy worlds up for paying tourists. This is not exactly Dungeons & Dragons, but technically, it's sort of close. Why should anyone be interested in this, except for similar background people — say, teenage girls who want to be «different» from the riff-raff that is perfectly content with Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift?
I don't really know. Possibly because, even though Fur And Gold is almost permanently teetering on the verge of Total Crappy Embarrassment, somehow none of the songs ever really get there — there is always some peculiar interesting touch that saves them at the last moment. Also, the lyrics should be totally disregarded. Let us assume they are simply there for the sake of adding another instrument, the human voice, and also that Natasha really sings in Urdu, or Quenya, because the moment you start seriously wondering what it is that she is singing about, you are gone, and no ER team is ever going to bring you back. If you really insist, let's assume she is trying to remember some of the dreams she had when she was 10 years old.
But, like I said, all, or most of these songs have these neat little flourishes. 'Horse And I', the lead-in track that also explains the album sleeve, in order to be put on record, may not have needed that looping melody to be played on the harpsichord, or the stern martial drum pattern à la Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit', or the mind-fucking vocal overdubs coming from different sides. But when put together, they somehow transcend «creativity for the sake of being creative» — this becomes a new take on musical mysticism, well worth tasting even on the part of those who'd been following the development of mystical motives in pop ever since the 1960s (not to mention guaranteed to blow the roof off those who hadn't, but that sort of goes without saying).
'Trophy' and 'Sarah' (the latter — a concealed bow to Stevie?) redeem themselves with simple, but gritty bass lines that seem as if they'd been extracted from some early heavy metal classics and put to entirely different use in an entirely new musical context. 'What's A Girl To Do' is like The Shangri-Las all over again, arguably the catchiest and simplest of all the songs here, and so innocent and, somehow, unpretentious that hating it would be out of the question. (You might want to turn your nose at the spoken verses stuffed with tragic-romantic clichés, but I do believe she is consciously paying tribute to Mary Weiss and the girls here — if she is not, count me seriously disappointed).
Even the lengthy closer 'I Saw A Light', on which she tries to go for a cathartic crescendo, even elevating her voice to screaming levels, is attractive — it certainly does not work the intended way, because her instrumental skills are not enough to create a real «musical orgasm», and her voice only betrays its frailty when she goes for the extra decibels; but the main minimalist melody, be it just four notes, has a strange soothing, comforting quality that you sometimes get from real good ambient albums.
Also, it is not really easy to categorize the record: regardless of how many influences there are, the songs seem to have been written from total scratch, without any particular genre restrictions, in a mode of total freedom. Classical, folk, Motown pop, art-rock, piano balladry, it all stops and starts without warning — all of it raw and somewhat under-experienced, because, for the most part, Khan is there on her own, but so what? It merely adds to the braveness factor.
True, it's often difficult to tell if the created atmosphere is really teeming with spirit or is just a hollow technical creation — especially on all the plodding ballads like 'Seal Jubilee' and 'Sad Eyes'. But perhaps this is exactly where we should leave it at: Fur And Gold is a lightweight musical enigma, an album over the authenticity / fakeness of which one could, if one wanted to, fight a Trojan War and still not even manage to build a proper wooden horse. All I can offer is my judgement: not overwhelmed, but intrigued, and for an album with lyrics like those to be even modestly intriguing, its creator must be endowed with talent. Blame it on the cynicism and blandness of the times that some creators get a bit too bluntly derailed by superficial fantasy temptations. I move for a forgiving and encouraging thumbs up.
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