It would seem that mysticism has been in full swing lately, judging by the abundance of onlookers at a recent nightlong book release event for the latest Harry Potter volume, here in downtown Manhattan. The folk resurgence in the art world has been prevalent for several years now, and has seen the likes of Marcel Dzama, Chris Ofili, et al go through more than one major creative arc in that time span. The Tolkien ripple effect that Hollywood has been circling around has more currency than ever, and you can even sense a second wave of boho-chic in the fashion industry. All of which is of interest, because at age 27, Natasha Khan is releasing her first record.
Bat For Lashes by all accounts is Khan. Yes, she has three band-mates, Caroline Weeks, Abi Fry and Lizzy Carey, but the sounds they produce are mostly delicate overtures and musical footprints to Khan's vocal narratives. At 27, Khan has had the advantage of watching her peers, surveying the aforementioned landscape, and maybe doing enough processing about it all to make a record with refinement in mind. Or with at least some assent that she enters the fray on the heels of neo-folk's second act. Chan Marshall is apparently full-circle sober now, so does any of it matter anymore?
Fur & Gold's cover art offers a graphic prelude, mining the world of dark fantasy and depicting a midnight scene amusingly similar to King Diamond's Abigail cover artwork. (Khan has credited her own dreams of Joan of Arc and black horses as having inspired her to write many of the songs that appear on Fur & Gold). Themes from Khan's former pursuits as a nursery school teacher and multimedia installation producer are pervasive throughout Fur & Gold, as she obsesses over nocturnal creatures, dark forests and caves, the sea, nighttime curiosities and brewing misadventures-there's enough visual material to mull over for several listens. For the most part, the production is savvy enough to know when to get sparse, and sparser still, only ever adding enough to let the storytelling lead the way. All of which lends well to shaping each song's particular topography, and as the album unfolds, there is a sense of the sublime and secretive that holds its grip to a degree.
Weaved throughout Fur & Gold are the obvious musical footnotes to Siouxsie, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell. The first two tracks, "Horse & I" and "Trophy," almost serve as a musical valentine in its one-two Kate Bush-BjÃ¶rk punch. But unlike BjÃ¶rk, who comes across more vocally defiant and garish on her records, Khan seems content to offer her vocals as little more than instrumental (and emotional) bait, almost like a trail of popcorn laid on the forest floor to help from getting lost in the middle of the night. Not yet does she have the full moxie of Siouxsie or the neurosis of Cat Power to fan the flames, but there is room to grow. There are also missteps here and there. Songs like "Prescilla" and "Sad Eyes" prove to be too literal, lyrically lazy and emotionally rudimentary ("Sad eyes baby it's been such a long time, keep my heart breaking in the dark, come and spend the night") to leave any sort of impression. If not for Khan's whispery fairy-tale delivery, half the album would read as a laundry list of coarse sentiments (think Arden Wohl without the set props). As the album progresses, it becomes filled with too many moments of dormancy, with no real catharsis to be found, either lyrically or sonically. By the time the cyclic piano chorus of the album's eighth track, "Bat's Mouth," rushes in ("She is sure, she is sure, she is sure..."), you half expect a major bloodletting on your hands (or at least some high range work), but instead it comes through somewhat strained and overly fussy. The most playful song, "What's A Girl To Do?," is also Fur & Gold's most recent single, and in a way it's Khan at her least self-conscious and most humorous. You can almost see her giggling at the gag in between vocal track takes, and it leaves you wishing more of the songs were approached with less restraint.
Fast forward five years from now, and maybe Khan has written or is busy writing her masterwork, an album of emotional scale and complexity that only comes from treading not so lightly. Bat For Lashes show enough on their first recording to hope for that, and Khan certainly has the heroine magnetism to back it up. In the coming years, you can almost see her going through Bowie-like shape-shiftings from station to station, album to album. All those dreams of Joan Of Arc and black horses at the window will swirl off to somewhere, but will she share?