Roisin Murphy – Hairless Toys – Review

John Preston

Hairless Toys is not a surprising title to be given to an album made by Roisin Murphy or Moloko, the band in which she was the vocalist for just over a decade and who produced 4 successful studio albums; their debut was called Do You Like My Tight Sweater? The significance of Hairless Toys is based around what your subconscious might conjure up if it were exposed it to those two words, arranged in that order with no context given, and then set to music. This is Murphy’s third solo album and follows an EP released last year of Italian-language pop songs from which it borrows some of the springy and constantly uncoiling electronics, but that is barely the half of it. Both were produced by Murphy’s long- term music collaborator Eddie Stevens and Hairless Toys ventures even further outside of what can be considered the singer’s well established, and loved, area of work. There are many risks taken here, some which may initially confound even the most loyal fan.

‘Gone Fishing’, the first song released from the album and the lead-in track here, is about families. Potential alarm bells could sound here announcing Murphy’s foray into motherhood themes, she now has 2 children, but this would be inaccurate. The song is a heartfelt and surprisingly quiet and thoughtful tribute to the culture of the Vogue ballrooms that began life in the ghettos of Harlem, New York in the mid 1980s and whose biggest stars were the subject of the endlessly referenced documentary, Paris is Burning. The house mothers and their gay, adopted children would not only take their category to the ball but a maternal, paternal bond based on a shared experience of both race discrimination and homophobia and the subsequent need for escapist exhibitionism was formed. Music played a key role in the balls, early house beats and Salsoul disco were the soundtrack that the House of DuPree, or LaBeija collected their awards to and again Murphy subverts here with her choice to not make this a flamboyant bitch-house or disco track. Delicately layered with warm but introverted synth pads and a clattering percussion that recalls Grace Jones ‘My Jamaican Guy’, the delicately kissed line ‘so beautifully dressed’ has rarely carried so much significance.

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‘Evil Eyes’ is Hairless Toys‘ one true groove. Slapping bass, hand claps and a sturdy funk intention is locked down before a luminescent synth bolt of Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ era proportions, sky-rockets Murphy’s spell breaking ‘hocus pocus ‘ chorus into a disco heaven. Lovers, and there are many, of the brilliant disco-pop of Murphy’s last album from 2007 ‘Overpowered’, will find some solace here with the song’s keen sense of fun and drama and its, relatively, linear song structure. Following the crashing drums of its Cerrone ‘Supernature’-like introduction, ‘Exploitation’ settles into a nervy, woozily insistent synth and bass hook which is macabrely penetrating . Over a fast and solid house beat Murphy assumes the role of narrator to some of the oldest tricks in the book. ‘Let’s leave the money and run, you son of a gun’ and ‘never underestimate creative people and the depths that they will go’ are archly cooed over what is essentially a 2-part track where the last 5 minutes, completely instrumental, jazzily bug out to the point of utter collapse.

Maintaining the ingenuity and stunning intensity of these opening 3 tracks, which make up almost half of ‘Hairless Toys’ total running time, was never going to be easy. The album’s middle section jolts backwards slightly with the acid-bass squelch of ‘Uninvited Guest’ possibly the most Moloko-like track Murphy has recorded since being a solo artist. Never a bad thing, but in this case, the song is reminiscent of a ‘Things to Make and Do’ era album track and only emphasises the more self-consciously kooky corners that the band could occasionally paint themselves into. ‘Exile’ has a star gazing, weathered cowboy twang that has a Lynch- like, bummed out ‘Wicked Game’ atmosphere but the sonic styling overshadows a song which may be one of Murphy’s best performances here, but is not one of her stronger songs.

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The 3 songs that conclude the final third of Hairless Toys, there are only 8 songs in total, are the most abstract and initially puzzling. ‘Glass House Girls’ continues the examination of alternative families and is told from Murphy’s own perspective. Overlapping themes appear with the use of the use of the word ‘house’; house music, an enduring influence on Murphy’s work who cut her teeth on Manchester’s dance scene in the late eighties and early nineties, the LGBT houses of the vogue balls referred to in ‘Gone Fishing’, and ultimately, the house as a place to take shelter amongst your own kind. Rather than celebratory, Murphy’s tone is sad and defensive and every time the electronic sounds threatens to break out into an all-out dance track it falls back down on itself again. The album ends with two ballads, the slow waltz of the title track and on ‘Unputdownable’, a piano accompanied lullaby which rousingly opens up into a folk come country singalong chorus equating the pleasures of book reading to that of discovering a potential soul-mate.

Fortunately Hairless Toys isn’t the unpleasant experience that its skewed concept might lead you to think it might be, it is only occasionally awkward and could benefit from a dynamic edit here and there. In comparison to Murphy’s previous 2 solo albums, however crammed musically Hairless Toys might be, it can feel the slightest of the 3, lacking the coherence of Ruby Blue in particular. This isn’t necessarily a criticism though as Roisin Murphy has again made a record that defies expectations and this current episodic and seemingly spontaneous and experimental direction could not have been predicted. Hairless Toys is essentially an awesome sideshow of demented and heartbreakingly tender beauty and ongoing psycho-sexual obsessions based around Murphy’s own life lessons and experiences.

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About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.