In Britain we're used to unusual noses. The sheer amount of badly cut, over-priced gak is partly responsible - there's only so much cut glass and corn starch you can hoover up your schnooter before it crumbles like a badly baked battenberg. A steady stream of smashed septums pollute our newspapers, from soap star Daniella Westbrook's cavernous nasal chamber to society girl Tara Palmer-Tompkinson's collapsed bridge, and that's before you even get to surgical atrocities such as the one inflicted on professional attention-whore Jodie Marsh's hooter.
But these bizarre beaks are nothing compared to what British ex-pat Janine Rostron, aka Planningtorock, has constructed on her face. Having presumably grown tired of performing in elaborate costume, she's made her own face the mask by decorating it with a very masculine, misshapen nose (displayed in all its glory in the video for “Doorway”). It's a physically small but causes a symbolically significant change in her appearance, one that's reflected in the subtle but noticeable evolution of her music since 2006's début “Have It All” .
That album focused on Rostron's journey from the bleakness of Bolton to the bohemian paradise of Berlin, where she is still based. Tracks like “Bolton Wanderer” and “Never Going Back” were strident émigré anthems, whereas the playful waltz of the brilliant “Think That Thought” introduced us to all the essential Planningtorock elements: staccato strings, plaintive vocals and a tendency to rely on melodic rather than percussive instruments to lay down the rhythm. These remain in evidence on her new album “W”, but there's a greater emphasis on more overtly electronic accompaniment.
It wouldn't be outlandish to imagine that Karin Dreijer Andersson, aka Fever Ray, might take a smidgeon of responsibility for this minor swerve. Last year The Knife collaborated with Rostron and Mt. Sims on the opera “Tomorrow, In A Year”, and the spectre of Fever Ray’s moody introspection casts a shadow here, not least on the aforementioned “Doorway”. Whether you see this as a positive or not depends largely on how much you like Fever Ray. Suffice to say if you're a fan you'll find much to enjoy here.
Regardless, Rostron has too much personality to bear over-comparison to anyone. And a deeply intriguing personality it is. Her eccentric and theatrical appearance belies the fact that her face is often half-hidden, by masks, prosthetics or the whip of her hair; a fragility of façade echoed in “The Breaks” where “we break too easily” becomes “I break too easily”. Her visual tinkering with gender is also audible in the raunchy “I Am Your Man” where the declarations of love (and lust) turn out to be self-directed - “Hey me, I'm the right man for you!”. It's a novel approach to a love song, and typically gender-ambiguous. On tracks like the similarly self-referential “Janine” even her vocal is altered to sound more manly.
However, with the stunningly innovative “Have It All” now five years old, such originality is harder to achieve. Songs like “Jam”, although brilliant, could easily be an off-cut from Rostron’s début; yet when “W” deviates too far from that formula it flirts with just sounding like everyone else. Perhaps musical progression isn’t all it’s hyped up to be – after all, things can progress badly. That's not to say this album represents regression; but songs like “The One” are just a tacky 4/4 beat away from turning minimalist yearning into maximal banality.
Thankfully Rostron is wise enough to avoid these pitfalls (although there will be too many saxophone stabs/solos for some). And let’s face it, she could get Linda Perry to write her songs and The Saturday’s stylist to sort out her wardrobe and the end result would still be unmistakeably Planningtorock. Her personality is as irrepressible as her new nose, and it's a personality that is completely unique in contemporary music. But Planningtorock is best when you can say the same about the music. That’s only half-true here.
Kier Wiater Carnihan