Marc Almond

The Velvet Trail

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Marc Almond, one of vanguard pop's great chameleons and stylists, suggested that 2010's Variete would be his final album of original material. True to his word, his intervening records, The Tyburn Tree: Dark London and Ten Plagues: A Song Cycle, have been largely collaborative affairs that featured his voice more than his songwriting. Composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Chris Braide sought to change his mind about retirement. The man whose résumé includes (but is far from limited to) hits for Sia, Britney Spears, Paloma Faith, and Lana Del Rey, sent Almond three tunes. The singer was inspired enough to write lyrics and sing on them. The transcontinental process continued back and forth until the album was completed. (The pair didn't meet until the album was finished.) Each man turned out to be a muse for the other. Almond found a composer who implicitly understood and embraced his various musical and topical obsessions, while Braide found a singer whose voice and persona were substantive enough to work with exclusively (after spending many anonymous years on the multiple-producer-and-songwriter-assembly line that dominates 21st century pop records). The Velvet Trail contains 16 tracks, 12 songs separated and concluded by four brief instrumental works that make it a near suite. Almond is at his excessive best lyrically. His themes are drenched in love, lust, loss, and subterranean swagger. His voice has never sounded better; it is virtually untouched by time. "Bad to Me" updates his best '90s work driven by crisp, electronic drums and guitars textured with bells and a female backing chorus. "Zipped Black Leather Jacket" is adorned by a finger-popping loop, acoustic and electric guitars, and spidery synth and piano lines. Almond's protagonist is a modern version of Jean Genet's Querelle, full of back alley bravado. With its synth pulses and locked-down loops, "Pleasures Wherever You Are" could have been done by Soft Cell. "Minotaur" is a big-production torch song. It fleshes out the inner psychological, archetypal landscapes in the myth -- and Jean Cocteau's famous drawing in the first-person. The big beat synth pop of "Demon Lover" references early girl group rock à la Phil Spector without ever leaving the realm of Almond's postmodern grasp. "When the Comet Comes" is a soaring, splendid anthemic duet with the Gossip's Beth Ditto. The rest of these songs are fine ballads in various musical frames: there's chamber cabaret in "Life in My Own Way" that contemporizes the low-life Weimar Republic ideal. "Winter Sun" recalls Bryan Ferry's romantic farewells. The cinematic, desolate reverie in the title track is among the most beautiful songs Almond has ever cut. With The Velvet Trail, Braide, with his consummate skill and sensitive brilliance combines Almond's theatrical and lyric personas with the emotional honesty in the grain of his voice. As a result, his lyric creativity, at once direct, defiant, vulnerable, and deliberately excessive, is out of the mothballs and back out where it belongs: front and center.

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