In an admirably daring move, Goldfrapp's second album, Black Cherry, takes the duo in a very different direction than its instant-classic debut, Felt Mountain. Instead of just serving up more lush electronic torch songs -- which certainly would've been welcome -- Allison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory continue in the direction that their cover of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" suggested, adding digital-sounding synths, electroclash-inspired drum machines, and more overtly sexual lyrics to their music. While their artistic risk-taking is commendable, unfortunately the same can't always be said for the results: Black Cherry sounds unbalanced, swinging between delicate, deceptively icy ballads and heavier, dance-inspired numbers without finding much of a happy medium between them. It's true that Felt Mountain's cinematic sweep owes a debt to the likes of Portishead, Björk, John Barry, and Shirley Bassey, but its mix of old-school glamour and more modern arrangements -- not to mention Allison Goldfrapp's charms as a futuristic siren, at once sensual and aloof -- were so compelling that the album felt fresh despite its roots. Black Cherry, however, is so dominated by its influences that all too often there doesn't seem to be enough room left in the music for Goldfrapp to really make the music its own. To be fair, most of the album isn't bad -- it's just not as consistently amazing as Felt Mountain. Songs like "Crystalline Green," "Tiptoe," and "Train" are among the better synth pop-inspired tracks, keeping enough of Goldfrapp's previous sound to give a good balance of familiarity and invention, but they don't really show off the expressive range of Goldfrapp's voice that well.
Not surprisingly, Black Cherry's highlights apply Felt Mountain's eloquent restraint to a slightly different sonic palette: The title track has a spacy allure thanks to the flute-like synths and lighter-than-air drums and strings, while "Deep Honey" mixes harpsichords, strings, and foreboding analog synths to ominously beautiful effect. "Hairy Trees" conjures a digitally pristine utopia (though it does include the rather embarrassing lyric "touch my garden") and "Forever" is one of the few tracks that really allows the pure tonal beauty of Goldfrapp's singing to shine through. Problems crop up on Black Cherry when the group works too hard to change its trademark sound: Despite its very danceable groove, "Twist" overplays its hand by adding too many buzzing synths and operatically orgasmic vocals (though, admittedly, they do show off Goldfrapp's impressive pipes better than some of the other songs). "Strict Machine" and "Slippage" share a similar fate, piling on dominatrix-y drum machines to give the songs a dance edge but eventually sound weighed down by them in the process. It's possible that Black Cherry disappoints because it tries to go in two different directions at once; it might have been a more coherent listening experience if it were either more ballad-based or featured more synth pop homages. As it stands, it's merely a not entirely successful experiment that suffers from its ambitions and in comparison to its brilliant predecessor. While some Felt Mountain fans may not have the patience for this album's radical departures, Black Cherry is still worthwhile for those willing to take some risks along with the group. ~ Heather Phares