Tag Archives: Morcheeba

Cowboys – Portishead

In 1994, Portishead went from being cutting edge to something dangerously close to a punch line within six months. The band had formed in Bristol, a collaboration between producer and DJ Geoff Barrow, who had worked as an assistant engineer on (fellow Bristolians) Massive Attack’s seminal Blue Lines, and singer Beth Gibbons, who sang jazz and R&B in a local gigging band, augmented by a sympathetic jazz guitarist of Barrow’s acquaintance – a man called Adrian Utley, who was tired of playing Radio Two sessions and cruise ships and was looking for some music that would stretch him, that was a little meatier.

The three of them crafted an atmospheric sound, influenced as much by film noir as hip-hop (although it was very clearly a post-hip-hop construction), using scratchy and distorted samples, low-bpm beats and jazz-influenced vocals (all sung). The press soon coined a name for this new type of music: trip-hop.

Urgh.

Portishead, whose music was undeniable very stylish and modish and ‘now’, deeply resented having their emotional and heartfelt work reduced to this ghastly buzzword. They had to endure hearing their songs get co-opted by TV music supervisors everywhere. You couldn’t switch on the telly without hearing snatches of Sour Times, Glory Box or Numb used under trailers and station bumpers. Dummy soundtracked North London dinner parties every night of week. Outright imitations (Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps) started to garner hit single. Programmed or sampled drum tracks influenced by their style started to turn up on mainstream singer-songwriter records. Their music, and moreover their style of music, was dangerously over-exposed. The whole thing made the band, and particularly Geoff Barrow, ill. They lay low for a while, then purposely made a second record too dark and unfriendly to be embraced by the mainstream.

Yet for all their good intentions, that album, Portishead, was a disappointment. The black-and-white high contrast of Dummy had been replaced by an unyielding grey. Gibbons’ vocals, now unvaryingly woebegone, sounded forced, the pain and misery alluded to in her lyrics rote. The album, in the end, wasn’t actually different enough to Dummy – it just took the more melancholy elements of their sound and dispensed with the seductive melodies, the empathy and warmth, and flashes of black humour (the slowed-down Johnnie Ray sample from Biscuit, for example) that, laid over heavily compressed beats and scratchy basslines, had been so compelling three years before.

But at a show at the Roseland Ballroom in New York something alchemical happened. Joined by an orchestra of some 40 players, a keyboardist (John Baggot) and a live rhythm section to give the songs a kick up the backside, tracks that had sounded flat on the album came alive on stage. None more so than Cowboys. Utley’s grindy guitar, played down on the album version, was now way up front and in the listener’s face. Gibbons’ distorted vocal sounded more eerily Cruella de Vil-like than ever before and hardly-there drones from the orchestra hovered over the whole thing like gathering stormclouds.

Perhaps Barrow had worked on the songs for the second album too long and the spontaneity had been lost. Maybe they’d sought perfection in uniformity rather than feel. Possibly they went past the mix on some of the album’s tracks. But almost every song from the second album they played at the New York show was improved by performance (conversely, every song from Dummy was diminished – the slowed-down, bell-less reading of Sour Times was a misjudged disaster).

Taken together Portishead and the Roseland NYC live record remain a fascinating pair – neither wholly satisfying, but each enriching the other. There’s much good music on Third but the band’s masterpiece remains Dummy, a record that seems to me to be rather undervalued today, dismissed as a bit fluffy, even. Nonsense. It’s still magnificent, twenty years on.

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Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons

No one knows – Olivier Libaux, featuring Inara George

I should hate this. Easy listening covers of hard rock songs. Hard rock covers of dance songs. Dance covers of jazz standards. Urrgh. Any sense of joy and discovery and emotional connection gets flattened by the concept, by the unspoken attitude behind the project, which is always one of three mindsets: Look how good this music would be if it adhered to our aesthetic norms (the impulse behind Travis’s Britney cover and Alien Ant Farm’s Smooth Criminal); Look how clever I am, that I can take a song in that style and play it in this style (the impulse behind this); or Look at me and my funny arrangements of pop songs (Richard Cheese and so on).

When the Queens of the Stone Age started, they derived their effect from playing repetitive riffs at punishing volume (and I do mean punishing – no other gig I’ve seen has come close to the eardrum-shattering, stomach-churning volume of QOTSA back in 2001, although I’ve never seen MBV or Dinosaur Jr), creating a sort of heavy metal version of Kraftwerk – robot rock, as Josh Homme called it.

But even by the time of second album Rated R, they were moving away from that. It became clear to Homme, I think, that the band’s real power lay in the distance between the aggression of the music and his calm, clean, disconnected-sounding vocals. Homme doesn’t shout hoarsely and passionately. He sings calmly, in rather a high-pitched voice, while the band around him batter their instruments senseless. That tension lies at the heart of all their great early songs: Regular John, Mexicola, The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret, Better Living Through Chemistry, In the Fade (although Lanegan is Homme’s proxy on that one) and No One Knows. During Nick Oliveri’s time with the band, his gonzo vocal performances were effective because of their contrast with Homme’s reigned-in style; without Homme’s blankness to play off, they’d have simply been ludicrous (and as it is they’re still pretty silly).

There’s no need to remake a QOTSA record where the music sounds as disconnected, as lifeless, as the vocal. Or, if you are going to make elevator-music backing tracks, get powerful, sweaty voices to sing the songs. Get, I don’t know, Tina Turner or someone, to stamp and bellow her way through them. Get Tom Jones to come over and roar the songs like an enraged Old Testament prophet.

And yet… I like this. I shouldn’t. On paper it shouldn’t work. I shouldn’t just dislike it; I should hate it. This sort of thing never works as real music. And yet it, on this occasion, it does. Olivier Libaux, the French songwriter behind Les Objets Bain and Nouvelle Vague (who have done the same in the past to the Talking Heads), has made a full record of this stuff, with a parade of guest singers: the Bird & the Bee singer Inara George (daughter of Lowell George from Little Feat) on No One Knows, plus Susan Dillane from Woodbine, Ambrosia Parsley from Shivaree, Skye from Morcheeba and so on. Since all the singers give similar performances, with no real outliers in tone or approach, there’s more than a whiff of markets being targeted; get a guest singer and you can sell your record to that singer’s fanbase; get 10 guest singers… There’s more than a whiff of cynicism about the whole enterprise, and still I can’t bring myself to hate the damn thing.

It’s a strange feeling to like a record that seems to have been designed specifically to annoy you. Yet here it is, and while I’m certain I couldn’t stand a whole album of it, I do like it. I’d tell you why, but I honestly can’t.

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Inara George and Josh Homme – They don’t know. I don’t know. I guess no one knows