The post-disco era produced electro funk hits worthy of the same mirrorball bombast of disco’s finest moments. “Let the Music Play,” fueled by Chris Barbosa’s Latin fusion with R&B, introduced the world to Shannon. Evelyn “Champagne” King made love come down with her gospel roots painting each emotive melody in vibrant reds and purples with darker shades of gray. Madonna owes her entire lifeblood to the post-disco era, making the music a complexion light enough for record companies and fashion designers to create the safer, more suburban designs grown from the Bronx.
Every genre has an outlier. Irish chanteuse Róisín Murphy grew up listening to the same bands who continue to inspire indie music today: Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth. Drawn to music’s artful side, Murphy embraced pop music histrionics, many of whom she influenced to broaden and renew the stage’s potential to provoke, confront and captivate, such as Lady Gaga and La Roux. Her time with Moloko established a fusion of post-disco coupled with Bristol’s acid temple built on soul and funk’s foundations. Critics flung the band in with Portishead and Massive Attack. Trip hop elements existed. The LSD-comedown tempos and 2:00 a.m. industrial ambience lurked in Moloko’s music. But taken for granted was their penchant for pop compositions, Cabaret Voltaire-inspired experimentations, and Murphy’s unmistakable voice.
Unremarkably, her voice lacks the fervent, a la the back pews emotional strikes of Shannon or Evelyn King. Her power source comes from her delivery and distinctive sound. Hers is a voice that once it is heard, it cannot be mistaken with another singer. Others tamper with her contralto variations, her mixture of soft jazz impressions and bluesy lines, but those familiar with her and her inspired imitators recognize the real Róisín Murphy.
Without Moloko’s Mark Brydon by her side, she stepped out alone and began recording dance pop with producers Matthew Herbert and Paul Dolby, the initial fruits of which were her debut album Ruby Blue released in 2005 and its 2007 successor Overpowered. Nothing earth-shattering, but her voice complimented the new places electronic music conquered. 2015’s Hairless Toys ventured into recording electronic music in the moment, creating room for improvisation and the emotionally tangible—far from the intangible, endless loops that sound Abelton processed with their fountain of presets. Bjork’s preferred method takes away from the algorithmic laptronica and makes the perceived music-less music organic. “Gone Fishing” possesses Moroder-isms that, at moments, sound like Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Making it Murphy’s track were the folk Irish overtones interspersed with the post-disco laid back vocal phrasing. The best parts of post-disco have always been the voice as an instrument; the ballad plays at 120 bpm.
Hairless Toys announced Murphy’s return after her eight-year hiatus, and history suggests that most hiatus-breaking albums contain more excitement than quality music. Murphy’s latest LP Take Her Up to Monto stabilizes its neurotic predecessor. She returns to the idiosyncratic playfulness found in the nuances of Moloko’s finest moment, their 1995 debut album Do You Like My Tight Sweater?. “Mastermind” showcases her in a familiar environment: long introduction, spaces between each lyrical exchange, ambient sounds from unfulfilled realms. What peeks between the familiar landscape are the atonal stabs and sound randomization that disturb the natural order of the scene. Like a dog mauling a rabbit during a picture-perfect sunset.
Lost within the distraction are her words, which come across as words one wishes she would have said in person, if she had the courage and frame of mind at that moment. “Rendered defenseless at the slightest hint of suggestion / I’m petrified and I’m fucked if I do and I’m fucked if I don’t” establishes a paradox that appeals to the felicitous despair of not wanting to let go. Her words respect the instrumentation. They do not cheapen the song’s appeal with a “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” type of hook.
The less obvious songs, and particularly “Ten Miles High,” pull the veneer off of the mall-ready electropop, offering a hook to bitter the already soured pot. “Goodbye, oh little cruel world / Never again will I ever be grounded on Earth or be bound by the hurt in you” pulses over off-beat accents and analog bass synths performed purposely outside of the expected four-on-the-floor rhythms. After all, the chorus is an invocation to a suicide note, and suicide is one of life’s most asymmetrical undertakings. Murphy departs here with the La Rouxes, Robyns and Little Boots of the post-disco world. Her emotional awareness captures the tilt in her sound. She finds comfort with irritating the structure, an effect of Matthew Herbert’s and Murphy’s previous musical partnership.
Street noise pries open “Nervous Sleep” before its restless descent. It provides a dialogue to an unresolved nightmare. Compelling, however, is how engaging agitation sounds coming from Murphy with irregular buzzes and aimless spots of noise that interrupts her train of thought. The narrative lasts for nearly eight minutes without a hint of remorse or compassion. “I’m scared of never having seen another person on this road in days / and you’re just making me nervous / and I’m driving in a daze” disorients, and the track pushes Murphy into a corner ready to leap out without knowing the time or the place.
Murphy has the potential to be this era’s Scott Walker. Wearing the folk hero badge like an outlaw, she does not need to reach out to pop music’s oversaturated, Max Martin-sculpted stars. Unlike the Taylor Swifts of the world, she is unafraid. Murphy forges into musical worlds by taking fragments here and there from each one to fuse them into her own part of her universe. Take Her Up to Monto signals not the beginning, but the continuation of Murphy’s sonic explorations. Refreshing is her timing during an era where risks are fewer and the rewards are YouTube views, Facebook likes and Twitter verifications.
Notable Tracks: “Mastermind” | “Nervous Sleep” | “Ten Miles High”