Sharps and Flats: Morcheeba

A review of Morcheeba's "Big Calm" from China Records.

By Frederick Woodruff

Published March 24, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In our attention deficit-driven world, the ability to quickly convey the essence of a musical artist is crucial. Conversing daily with music marketers, I've become accustomed to their seconds-to-spare staccato as they categorize their product: "It's a Tex-Mex techno vibe with a heavy trance undercurrent that reminds you of late Bob Dylan at his vaguest." (This is actually how the Latin Playboys were described to me several years back.)

Trip-hop -- a mesmerizing hybrid of hip-hop, soul, dub and kitchen-sink experimentation (see what I mean?) -- was an appellation hatched in the mid-'90s after British artists Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky unleashed a series of incomparable and startlingly spooky productions. Adjectives and musical lexicons buzzed, and everyone from David Bowie to Bjvrk culled heavily from the new concoction. Eventually the haze burned and the trip category was institutionalized -- inevitably followed by the question, "So, what's next?"

Enter Morcheeba, yet another band that zigzagged its way out of the English trip shop with its '96 debut, "Who Can You Trust?" Hard-core trancers liked the album's lazy pace and gauzy vocals; reggae aficionados grooved on the dub-soaked guitars; John Cale fans appreciated the haphazard mix-up of string quartets with buzzing reverb and tape loops; and Time magazine called it "rapturous." The band faired well, had sort of a hit with "Trigger Hippie," toured with Live and Fiona Apple and then quickly darted back into its South London studio to dispel the big sophomore slump myth.

The results are jumbled -- "Big Calm" isn't an album you'll be playing at your next kegger. The general ambience is refreshingly experimental but overly languid, with surreal lyrics put into high relief by vocalist Skye Edwards' airy and careful enunciation. From song to song, the trio drastically shifts arrangements to include everything from twangy pedal steel and edgy rock and blues riffs to lilting reggae flavors and subtle string and electronica arrangements. The eclectic effect is sophisticated enough to avoid feeling contrived, but occasionally fails when "Big Calm" remains too, well, calm. The album's highlights feature more jarring moments, like "Let Me See," with its Latin flourishes, and "Bullet Proof," a day-glo instrumental complete with jazzy keyboards and lots of manic scratch-rapping.

"Big Calm" arrived with the following instructions in its press kit: "You shouldn't call it trip-hop." And yet, save the country music flourishes, the album owes a lot to the loping redundancy that makes trip-hop engaging or maddening, depending on your mood. So, despite the marketing mavens, I've gotta classify Morcheeba under "Neo-pop, country/blues shoegazing with a trip-hop tap root that aims to please" ... and for the most part does.

Frederick Woodruff

Frederick Woodruff lives in Seattle.

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