"Angels With Dirty Faces"
(Virgin Atlantic Records)
Late last year I was fortunate enough to attend Tricky's taping for the PBS series "Sessions at West 54th Street." Having seen him play to unimpressive effect several times before, I wasn't expecting much--certainly not the emotional maelstrom cooked up by the four-piece band. Spiralling guitar riffs woven around a drummer's funky breakbeats; Tricky alternately jammed samples through the keyboards and hopped around frantically, clutching the mic stand, shaking his head in a frenzy; Martina and another, unnamed, female vocalist sounded more like blues singers than rappers. Tricky and his crew seemed to have found a way to play rock as if it was hip hop, adding the live element of the former to the abstract sound and repetition-compulsion of the latter without detracting from either.
Due to poor sound mixing and song selection, however, that intensity never came across on the show as it was eventually broadcast and--albeit for different reasons--the same is true of Tricky's new album, "Angels With Dirty Faces," which features a similar emphasis on live dynamics. Tricky has been oft-quoted lately on his ambition to write songs at the level of Bob Marley or Kurt Cobain, but, at a fundamental level, he's not really a songwriter at all: he's a studio alchemist. While he does manage to transfer his trademark brooding paranoia to the band format, and adds a few new elements--raging wah-wah guitars, a certain organic richness--much of what made him so unique in the first place has been lost. Where found sounds once created eerie, mutant dubscapes, now the burden of atmosphere now rests on guitar reverb and feedback. The problem is, Tricky hasn't found musicians who can create sounds as idiosyncratic as the ones he used to sample, and for the most part, the songs aren't strong enough to hold up on their own.
There are some good moments: "Singing the Blues" is grungy, bluesy, and funky all at once. "6 Minutes" and the title track carry the old Tricky menace. "Tear Out My Eyes" marries blues chords and harsh, reverberating machine loops nicely. But the PJ Harvey collaboration, "Broken Bones," is just plain weak, and the more straight-ahead rockers ("The Moment I Feared," "Money Greedy") tire rapidly: Tricky's permanently scarred vocal chords sound great hovering in and out of beats, but they're just annoying and incomprehensible as a lead instrument. He could well be on the way to something great, but "Angels With Dirty Faces" is only halfway there.
Some lessons might be in order from Massive Attack, the band who gave Tricky his start in guest spots on their classic "Blue Lines" and "Protection" albums. The Bristol collective has returned after their habitual five-year absence with "Mezzanine." There's a subtle bit of one-upmanship going on here: Tricky took the Massive Attack blueprint into wild new sonic terrain with his debut "Maxinquaye," and though he's not on "Mezzanine," the record has his grimy fingerprints all over it. The difference lies in that Massive's blend is far more sophisticated: they nail the rock/hip-hop fusion dead on with a virtuoso mix of grinding guitars, fat beats, cavernous noise, symphonic string arrangements, and otherworldly vocals. Sure, some of the tracks follow familiar patterns, and the album is structured the same way as the last two--epic vocal number up front, followed by a hip-hop jam, guest appearances from the female collaborators du jour, and a couple of dub instrumentals--but when the system works this well, why mess with it?
Initially, "Mezzanine" seems like a gloomy, swampy grind; however, repeated listening exposes numerous pleasures as alien textures rub up against each other. Rotating helicopter blades give way to gently plucked guitars; monstrous riffs drop out of the mix abruptly, dub-style, then bleed into chunky analogue synths; 3D's sinister whispered raps dart in and out of (ex-Cocteau Twins) vocalist Elizabeth Frasier's gorgeous onomatopoeic crooning. And that's just "Group Four." Elsewhere, Jamaican legend Horace Andy is as monumental as ever, sounding like the angel of the opener's title and a painfully concerned citizen on the dub-with-concrete-boots "Man Next Door." "Rising Son" is one of the toughest Massive tunes ever. "Dissolved Girl," which offsets Sarah Jay's fragile vocals against razor-sharp riffs, could even be a hit. But it's Frazier, sounding like the cyborg opera singer from "The Fifth Element" cast adrift in a sea of downbeats, who really sets the tone for "Mezzanine." Premillenial tension doesn't get any better than this.--Ben Williams
The Lounge Lizards
"Queen of All Ears"
(Strange & Beautiful Music)
"Queen of All Ears" is the first studio album we've gotten from the Lounge Lizards in nearly a decade, so what have they been doing all this time? Well, there were some truly extraordinary live shows (the last records were "Live In Berlin" vols. I & II) and all the members have played with an unholy host of other artists (from Bob Mould to Ornette Coleman). And, when he's not hunting the elusive giant squid with Dennis Hopper, Lizard Leader John Lurie writes soundtracks (hell, he even got a Grammy nomination for one).
And Lurie's vocation of making music for pictures strongly influences "Queen of All Ears"--the Lounge Lizards' songs have always unraveled into stories if you close your eyes, but this album is their most evocative yet. It's a more integrated work than their previous records; the perpetually shifting textures are more smoothly woven into a full album, rather than a collection of songs. And most of those songs have enough activity for an entire album.
For example, "The Birds Near Her House," which opens on horns riffing in a Philip-Glass repetitive wail that rises and falls like a European police siren. Then a drum roll flourishes like a secret door opening into a basement speakeasy, and we get a showy, brief performance of languorous, old-school horns. It whines down and we are back outside and the sirens fade. A bassline flickers in, strolling along in a groove that breaks into a run. A piano pounds as driving drums and chattering percussion attempt to outrace it--then all that falls away and the piano floats into a quiet, early-morning, pensive solo. Which gives way to the gradual rebirth of the sax and some clanking metal with a bassline, and eventually all the instruments make a boisterous comeback. Finally, there are a few choruses of what sounds like a bunch of drunken Sikhs chanting, and it's all over. (Phew.)
Much of the music feels like dialogue (and if we only spoke saxophone, we could eavesdrop). "The First and Royal Queen" and "Queen Reprise," which bookend the album (Lurie loves to bookend), are based on the same system of strings and piano exchanging comments behind a spindly, scratched-out guitar hook. In "Scary Children" the cello works a repetitive Middle-Eastern riff, droning in and snapping out, as the two saxes squawk over it like nasty old aunts in the corner, seeming to use very polite terms to discuss something horribly filthy indeed. Or, "The Yak," which tells an outright story, as Lurie (he also does all those beer commercial voiceovers) exercises his mastery of the perpetual aside on the tale of a farmer, his lovely wife, his herd of tiny dogs, and his mysterious yak ("you see, the yak had bit him once") over a funk bassline, goofy little synth riff, and the occasional all-at-once brass blare.
Admittedly, with all this action, you can get a little lost trying to navigate "Queen of All Ears"--every song is divided into parts, which are divided still further, and there is a tendency to end every song in fabulous, blaring polyphonic extravaganzas. But they can pull it off: the Lounge Lizards have the deepest bench in the league, and if everyone is strong enough to hold on, by all means, go out on that limb.--Lissa Townsend Rodgers
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