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Take Her Up To Monto
[Play It Again Sam]
There’s a moment towards the end of ‘Mastermind’, the opening track of Róisín Murphy’s brilliant new album Take Her Up To Monto, where a number of incredibly dramatic multi-tracked vocals blend together in cacophony to create a creepy and surreal effect that almost recalls the title track to David Bowie’s final LP, Blackstar.
Like that record, much of Take Her Up To Monto is primarily driven by rhythm, the sound often clipped and distorted as well as slathered in retro electronics. No doubt best known as the voice behind 90s electronic pop group Moloko, Murphy continues her recent burst of creativity with her second album in the past 12 months following on from an eight-year hiatus. Whilst the Wicklow native is regarded for her lounge singer, jazz influence-style vocals, Monto sees her embrace electronica more and more, not just as music to back up her vocals, but as music to build her vocals around.
Take Her Up To Monto’s press release describes the tracks as being “architecturally magnificent”, which almost perfectly describes the album. Nearly every number is meticulously assembled with simmering, science fiction synthesisers, glitchy drum machines, throbbing piano lines and growling bass parts. It feels unbelievably well put together, with a sparseness lending a certain purity that’s hard to resist. Occasionally, Murphy will revert back to a more jazzy style, like the on the track ‘Lip Service’, where some warm Bossa Nova guitars gleefully recall some of her more traditional work.
As nicely put together as the album is, the songs do start to sound quite similar, with the (gorgeous) retro squawks melding together after a few listens and becoming quite samey. When this does occur, the saving grace that quickly emerges is Murphy’s vocals, which change and meld, as though an instrument, to suit the song. She moves with admirable ease through genres throughout Monto, and the effect is absolutely mesmerising. On ‘Whatever’ it sounds as though she’s lightly crooning into your ear, her voice weaving and twisting around the songs glockenspiel melody. ‘Romantic Comedy’ follows, a bouncy trip hop number with a strong and confident melody. ‘Thoughts Wasted’ stands out as a further vocal highlight, its chorus almost turning into a gorgeous spoken word piece that perfectly complements the songs lilting piano melody.
However, is it Murphy’s vocal performance on ‘Nervous Sleep’, Monto’s penultimate track, that is in many ways descriptive of the work as a whole. An epic, seven-minute beast of a song dealing with unending longing. The song starts with eerie wails and then settles into a melody reminiscent of something Beth Gibbons might sing with Portishead. Where Gibbons would explode in the chorus, Murphy instead gets quieter and echoey, which has an unnerving and mesmerising effect. The way that she ratchets up tension recalls the likes of Nick Cave and Tom Waits, and she ultimately refuses to pander to the listener, giving the song ultimate replay value.
To revisit the comparison between Monto and Bowie’s Blackstar, the chief similarity between the two is that both are complete achievements of individuality. Where Blackstar was, unfortunately, Bowie’s final hat tip to experimentation, Take Her Up To Monto feels as though Murphy is just getting started. That’s something we should all be excited about.