Bat for Lashes Two Suns

[Astralwerks/Parlophone; 2009]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: folk, pop
Others: Tori Amos, Björk

Natasha Khan, a Brighton resident raised partly in Pakistan, created a demo while still in school. The resulting album, Fur and Gold, dazzled with potential, reflecting an inquisitive musician, hungry to express and poeticize. Recorded in a country house among bongos, tambourines, cigarettes, and wine, the album saw Khan styling herself in childish garb, playing dress-up with artifacts inspired by her family’s caravanning, donning feathery head bands, and using a scepter to bang rhythm into the floor. Another acoustic tactic, for the song “The Wizard,” was to bury herself and a microphone under a duvet. She approached her fledgling career thus — with playfulness and zeal. Adopting a few peers as band members, Bat for Lashes realized itself with numbers, even if Khan was clearly the mother wolf.

For her second album, Two Suns, she’s done some renovations. Her backing musicians have been largely replaced with Scott Walker’s voice, Yeasayer’s percussion, and a fictional woman named Pearl. The latter is Khan’s alter ego, inspired by her experience wearing a provocative blonde wig on nights out in New York. The role-playing, scattered across the album, ponders the radical theory that blondes have more fun. Along the way, both characters are ensnared in confusing outer-spatial metaphors (do suns really spin, as she claims on “Glass”?). "Play in the ashes/ Of what you once were," she sings on “Traveling Woman.” On Fur and Gold, Khan hadn’t seemed to have met the new version of herself, let alone witnessed the torching of the old. Play she does here, but not playfully.

Khan is bemused by what is undoubtedly a confusing chapter in her musical life: sophomore year and the attendant themes of fame, geography, and relationships. The poppy “Pearl’s Dream” shows she’s still interested in myth creation, but the song is divorced from the hope-tinged ruminations of Fur and Gold. Khan’s voice is still smoky and delicate, but it howls and asserts itself more on this album, sometimes reaching too high, its imperfections whisked away by reverb. On songs like the frightening, Knife-like “Two Planets,” the listener isn’t taken very far outside the dull prose of everyday experience, which numerous tracks on Fur and Gold were able to do. Her new melodies are strong foundations, but what’s built onto them seems flimsy, applied without any real verve or deep concentration.

The pairing of Khan with Scott Walker sounded thrilling in theory, but in practice the two putter around in a sad curtain-call number fit for Jim Broadbent’s character in Moulin Rouge. A focal point of the album is “Moon and Moon,” named for Khan’s ex-boyfriend, Will Lemon (Moon and Moon's lead singer). It’s been a tour favorite for two years and may be Khan’s finest composition. But the fresh recording of it on Two Suns is uninspired. Ominously, she uses fragments of her all-female backing band from an old recording. Played as if through a tape recorder, their voices and handclaps, so crucial on the last album, are tinny and frail here. On “Peace of Mind,” a dragging PJ Harvey approximation, windswept backing vocals nearly bury Khan. As the momentum builds, so does Khan, but the song is brief and acquiesces the stage to the stunning “Siren Song,” which is chock full of thunderous drums, lush piano work, and brave vocals — a standout track.

To record the album, Khan traveled from California to London and, in between, hunkered deep in her thoughts and produced several songs that feel as spare and tentative as a demo. "Pearl’s Dream," "Glass," and "Siren Song" are three well-wrought exceptions. Perhaps for some, these are enough; she’s created such a lovable cult of herself that the dregs may not count against her. But the joy of Fur and Gold has vanished and taken some of Khan's potential with it. This is request for their safe return, no questions asked.

1. Glass
2. Sleep Alone
3. Moon and Moon
4. Daniel
5. Peace of Mind
6. Siren Song
7. Pearl's Dream
8. Good Love
9. Two Planets
10. Traveling Woman
11. The Big Sleep

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