Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 10

Bat for Lashes
Fur and Gold

The magical and the mystical inhabit Fur and Gold, the full-length debut of Bat for Lashes and, more importantly, of Natasha Khan, a Brighton-based British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with bewitching power.

Though technically a band, Bat for Lashes come across as a loose collective, primarily an outlet for Khan's fertile imagination and impressive talents. Khan wrote the songs on Fur and Gold, performed lead vocals on every track, played most of the music and contributed album artwork. In interviews and photo shoots, she's the voice and face of Bat for Lashes.

In those photos, she's inevitably painted or dusted or glittered up to look like a pixie, which is probably the first image of her that pops into people's heads when they hear Fur and Gold and enter its realm of beasts and folklore.

With harpsichord galloping away, "Horse and I" ushers us into the first of many nocturnal pursuits. "There is no turning back," Khan sings, and sure enough, we've plunged headlong through the looking glass, the throbbing bass of "Trophy" a seductive, encroaching darkness. Is that you over there, Moby?! No, those haunting backing vocals belong to Texas native Josh T. Pearson, whose guitar twinges and shivers intermittently.

Nestled in this night is the tremendous "What's a Girl to Do?," which features a spoken-word introduction a la The Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back." The spaciousness of the live drums takes the track out under the stars, where Khan laments a dying love, likening her heart to a bat that wants to fly away. The keyboard and sampler provide a modern, bobbing groove, while Khan's vocal performance provides a retro feel, drawing from '60s girl groups. The combination is otherworldly. Moreover, it works thematically in altering the perception of time, as any emotional watershed can do.

But more surprises await. About two-thirds of the way through the sparse, piano-driven ballads "Sad Eyes" and "Bat's Mouth," Khan's slow, doleful melodies climax out of nowhere, breaking the verse-chorus-verse structure to soar like a phoenix. She also covers Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," the spinnerets of a zither helping to soften it from a lustful declaration to a longing, pliant, feminine expression.

For the most part, Fur and Gold chronicles characters: sometimes human, sometimes animal. "Trophy" mentions queens and court jesters. "Seal's Jubilee," a placid tune with echoes and vibraphone, paints an ocean scene thriving with birds, sharks, a whale, a dog, trees, swans and, of course, seals. Then "teachers and travelers" arrive and lay waste to the land. Khan's choice of words are chilling: "And black snow came and black snow stayed."

"Sarah," no less dark, reflects on the life of an atheist who met an untimely end. And despite the fact she had been "going nowhere," the narrator confesses, "You know sometimes, I want to love like you / Sarah / so I know how it feels not to feel."

You'd think "The Wizard" would be self-explanatory, but the allusions to sex and possession --- what with the blood-drinking and the pledges of subservience and the "hands that drink my body" --- muddy the waters. I mean, is this a song about a wizard or an orgasm?

'Cause either way, it rules.

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