Saturday, March 6, 2010

Trip hop with Tricky - the cool menace of Maxinquaye

If yesterday was a bit of a tribute to the way music can make us feel good even when it’s telling us sad things, then it seemed only apt to stay on topic for a bit and listen today to the music of that enigmatic English musician, who places some hip hop on the table, puts a layer of rock on top of it, garnishes it in some art pop, turns down the temperature a few degrees and presents to you his music that, even though it’s oozing with melancholy and unease, even though it is plagued by its own demons, still somehow manages to lay you down somewhere lush, and to breathe its cool, smooth air over you. I listened today, of course to Tricky’s classic and never equalled-even-by-Tricky debut album, Maxinquaye.

Maxinquaye sets its tone from the beginning and while it’s a tone that might change its shade now and then, they are always cool colours that shine on you here, like the coolness of the moon – a pale, reflected light rather than one that radiates warmth. It is music that creates its chilled and chilling feel through a wide, spacious sound – with smooth electronic melodies that slide along and with vocals that are hushed and haunted, yet seductive, adding to the music’s moody ambience.

We are here in the heart of trip-hop, a distinctly British answer to hip-hop – more restrained, more subtle, more musically sophisticated and emotionally ambiguous than its American counterpart. And if there was to be an Olympic Games for dance music, then Maxinquaye – even now, fifteen years after its release – would surely be the British entry.

The album opens with ‘Overcome’, with its cool, mysterious ambience, sliding electronic line and laid back tempo, takes you into a cool, dark place, with just enough of a hint of mystery to be frightening.

This is where you stay for pretty well the entire album, in a strange place somewhere at the intersection of panic and chill out. There’s the more jagged beat of ‘Ponderosa’, metallic, industrial; but with soft, whispered vocals from Martina Topley-Bird, echoed by Tricky with snatches of lines, hints of grunts, half sexual, half bestial.

In ‘Black Steel’, there is a harder beat, Martina’s vocals now in that rapid-fire half-sung, half-recited poetry which here sounds musical in a way that not many other hip hop or trip hop musicians seem able to achieve. But the beat gives it a slightly menacing feel – music that, even though it wouldn’t be out of place at a fashionable inner urban drinks party, is not to be messed with. It is followed by ‘Hell is Around the Corner’, where Tricky’s dry, disgruntled voice, strolls along to a steady, sauntering beat – easy, unhurried, unfussed, but mean and out of sorts, like ‘Black Steel’ coming off speed.

In ‘Pumpkin’, a slow, lumbering bass, with a brooding, melancholy vocal line, gives the music a gloomy, troubled feel, and its tonality seems to always have the feel of moving downwards, like you are lying back and sinking gently into the dark. And there, with ‘Aftermath’, a slithering tempo, slinks around and over you, dark but marked with strange colours, creating a cold beauty, like the stripes on a snake.

Maxinquaye’s most pained music comes in the appropriately titled ‘Strugglin’’, more overtly bleak than anything else on the album where a strained little figure struggles in the background and seems to be trying to drag itself up from ground, but just can’t get anywhere. Here, Martina’s vocals are more anguished – it’s the first time you hear her shouting, and it’s a hurt, wounded shout, while Tricky mutters along beside her, and eventually without her, just on the wrong side of sanity.

The album closes with ‘Feed Me’ - a song about the complexities and the ambiguities of human relationships, where the music flows along to a fluid, bass-driven beat, but something icy-cold is injected into its veins by the tinkling of electronic keyboard percussion which ultimately is the only thing left of the song and of the album.

This must surely be one of the greatest debut albums ever – its perfectly polished sounds, its intricately balanced and counter-balanced moods, its smoothness, its coolness, and its ever-present sense of menace. It is music that makes you the feel that you are in one of those glamorous bar lounges where the lights are so dim that you can hardly see, and with plush seats and cool expensive drinks, and waiters who serve them to you without you noticing they’re there.

But there are unsettling things looming in the darkness, and Maxinquaye will take you there if you let it. Otherwise, you can just sit back, enjoy the stylish surroundings and let the shadows look after themselves.

Belated thanks to Marty R for introducing me to Tricky, and to Maxinquaye.

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