Pop CD: Martina Topley-Bird, The Blue God


Has there ever been a more unfairly maligned musical genre than trip-hop? For years, it's apparently been illegal to mention it without somewhere appending the sneering phrases "coffee table" or "dinner party", descriptive terms it's impossible to square with the albums made by the artists who defined the genre. What kind of dinner-party host decides to soundtrack the evening with Portishead's eponymous second effort or Massive Attack's Mezzanine, records so claustrophobic and depressing they could curdle creme brulee? Similarly, nobody's stopping you playing Tricky's paranoid, atonal and flatly terrifying 1996 album Pre-Millennium Tension in the background of your next prandial soiree, in much the same way that no one's stopping you from releasing a swarm of wasps into the dining room: put it this way, people would be talking about the evening for some years to come.

It has been trip-hop's unhappy lot to be judged by history not on the music made by its leading lights, but the music made by the genre's latecomers and bandwagon-jumpers: Morcheeba, Olive, Lamb. That seems like dismissing mid-60s guitar rock on the basis of Herman's Hermits, but events of recent weeks have gone some way to redressing the balance. Portishead have returned with a brilliant album that exemplifies their off-beam musical worldview, evoking the kind of music that only normally gets airplay on Stuart Maconie's exemplary BBC 6Music show The Freak Zone: the drone metal of Sunn O))), the experimental electronics of Silver Apples, Black Mountain's noisy dirges. Massive Attack have assembled a similarly strange and eclectic lineup as curators of this year's Meltdown: suffice to say it takes in both Grace Jones and Gong. Tricky, now signed to the same label as Arctic Monkeys, is currently readying his most keenly awaited album in years.

Cleverly restating your leftfield credentials is one thing, but the second solo album by Tricky's former collaborator Martina Topley-Bird tries something altogether more difficult. After the failure of 2001's Quixotic, she's teamed up with producer du jour Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, but Burton seems to have set himself the unenviable task of making a forward-thinking and fresh-sounding album using what you might call classic trip-hop signifiers. There are twanging guitars drenched in reverb and tremolo effects in tribute to the sound favoured by John Barry. There are cavernous druggy, breakbeats and samples laden with the crackle of dusty vinyl. There are echoing, dubby atmospherics, strings, and warmly fuzzy electric piano. You can understand why Burton has done it. He's open about the vast influence of Portishead et al on the sound of the records he makes, and the whole exercise burns with the fervour of the wronged fan, determined to set the record straight.

That seems laudable, but there are moments when The Blue God has the opposite effect from that intended, where the desire to create a loving homage overwhelms Burton's ability to stamp his own character on proceedings and Topley-Bird's songwriting fails to spark. Poison and Snowman glide by pleasantly enough, but they sound comfortable and safe. In addition, Topley-Bird's voice is smokily gorgeous, exuding a heavy-lidded, insouciant cool, but there are moments when heavy-lidded, insouciant cool is not what's called for. The racked blues of Valentine needs something with real emotional charge, but it gets heavy-lidded, insouciant cool. Razor Tongue has a similar musical feel to Tricky's Hell Is Round the Corner, but it doesn't have its thrilling air of menace, Topley-Bird and Burton having presumably decided that what it really needs instead is a surprise injection of heavy-lidded, insouciant cool.

Equally, however, there are moments when the pairing of Burton and Topley-Bird works to stunning effect, usually when the former twists his selection of familiar sounds into an unfamiliar shape. The single Carnies is a glorious pop song, powered by a 1960s soul-inspired chug. Baby Blue floats a similarly lovely melody over a weirdly disorderly production. Da Da Da Da is the most unexpected thing here, a child-like and utterly charming instrumental, equal parts sunshine pop and programmes-for-schools-and-colleges soundtrack.

But it's the closer Yesterday that gives a slightly maddening glimpse of what might have been. Hinging around a loop of synthesised squeals, sampled voices and disjointed drums, it sounds every bit as strange and inventive as the albums Topley-Bird made with Tricky in the mid-1990s. At moments like that, The Blue God sounds like another compelling entry in the ongoing campaign to rehabilitate trip-hop. At it's worst, alas, it sounds a bit coffee table.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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