Monday, 10 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #54: Big Calm (1998)

Morcheeba's first of three appearances on the chart comes in the shape of Big Calm, their critical and commercial breakthrough which marked their departure from 'the Bristol sound'.Morcheeba formed in the winter of 1995 by brothers Ross and Paul Godfrey, former griddle chefs from Kent. Teaming up with session vocalist Shirley Klarisse Yonavive Edwards, better known as Skye. Their debut album, Who Can You Trust? (1996) came at the height of 'the Bristol sound' (also known as trip-hop), pioneered by Massive Attack on their album Blue Lines (1991). Critical reception was warm but sales dragged while more established acts, like Massive Attack, continued to dominate. Feeling that trip-hop posed a dead end, the trio retreated to the studio to dream it all up again.

'The Sea', the album's opener, really does give a flavour of the new sound. While Who Can You Trust? was all about sterile tape loops and dark background noise, this begins with some wailing bluesy guitar and keyboards. Then the party piece comes out - Skye. Her voice is sweet, seductive and full to the brim of soul. It's not imposing, it gently warms you up, so that by the chorus you are utterly enchanted. You enjoy listening to her delivery so much that you almost overlook the copious production features, like the smooth string section on the second chorus.

Having started so well, Morcheeba continue the trend on 'Shoulder Holster'. Featuring the vocals of rapper Spikey T, this is a complete different kettle of fish. Instead of massaging you while you lie on a comfy chair, this wakes you up with its intelligent percussion and groovy beat. The lyrics are quite oblique, but that doesn't matter because the mix is just so immaculate - it's as precise as a late Steely Dan record, with an added dollop of carefree attitude. You never get bored or frustrated because it's so well-put together and yet so cool.

'Part Of The Process' is one of Morcheeba's best known songs. Although it begins with the sound of somebody farting through a keyboard, there's some lovely acoustic guitar. It also has a suave chorus: It's all part of the process/ We all love looking down/ All we want is some success/ But the chance is never around. As if this wasn't enough, this track is topped off by some at-first subtle, then flamboyant violins. It's one of those tracks which belongs on Later... with Jools Holland - it's laid back, sophisticated, interesting, and you listen with the knowledge that these are some of the best in their field.

'Blindfold' changes the mood of the album quite drastically. After some industrial-style sound effects muffled in the mix, Skye comes into her own. One interviewer once described her as "a singer... who could draw tears with her throat"¹, and he wasn't far off. Here she's not designed to chill you out or warm you up: she's in mourning, world-weary and struggling to go on. It's an amazing shift, not because it's obvious, but because it is not in the least sense artificial - you still feel that it's her, not just her being tweaked with in a studio.

But Skye cannot stay sad for long, and before you know it we've come to one of the liveliest tracks on the album. 'Let Me See' is bouncy, bold and very catchy. Skye is singing with a smile on her face, and the combined efforts of keyboard and drums on this serve to make this a clinching track on the album. There is also, for the tuned ear, a brief flute part, which sets off on the chorus and then is given an extended run in the fade-out. But never fear - Morcheeba have not magically changed into Genesis, it does nothing to damage the sound.

For those among us that are not dance-hall fanatics, 'Bullet Proof' will come as a disappointment. It's vocal-free (losing points already), it's based on a repeating loop (which becomes very annoying considering what it's a loop of), and relies on some ridiculous scratching for variety. After such a buoyant first half, this is a crushing let-down. More reminiscent of Who Can You Trust?, it has a sterile, traffic jam feel to it.

It's both a reward and a relief, then, that this song eventually gives way to 'Over & Over'. This is a splendidly different song, one of two truly five-star songs on here. With just an acoustic to accompany her (at least to start with) Skye sings so sweetly and so honesty that you cannot help but fall for her. The synthesised male vocals and the strings only add to this atmosphere, and while the lyrics are simple they are not bland, plain or synthetic, like so many half-baked numbers from this genre. It's a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

If you're a Tangerine Dream fan, you might recognise the drums at the start of 'Friction' - they must almost certainly be lifted from 'White Clouds' (see my review of The Essential Collection (2006, #86). But then the Godfrey brothers dressed up in funky drums, honky-tonk keyboards and a brass section to create almost a ska kind of a feel. The chorus to this may not have the best lyrics - Friction is turning to fire/ Friction is burning much high - but it's insanely catchy nonetheless.

We come now to 'Diggin' A Watery Grave'. Now, where the last instrumental, 'Bullet Proof', let us down, this compensates and then some. This is a dark, desolate and very atmospheric piece. With its brooding bass lines and wailing blues guitars - both acoustic and electric - you find yourself in John Steinbeck's America. You can feel the dust all around you and the rain falling in sheet with the harmonica.

It's a great piece of music, but it can't be made to match 'Fear & Love'. You might think that the strings in its intro make it too vulgar and grandiose - but Skye again proves you wrong. It's a tender masterpiece, where once again the chorus is beautiful, both in the lines themselves and the way in which Skye delivers them: Fear can stop you loving/ Love can stop your fear/ Fear can stop you loving/ But it's not always that clear. The cornet part is exquisite, matching the yearning in the singer's voice. It's the best track on the album, not just a match for 'Over & Over' but the perfect track to outshine it.

It is a great shame, with all that has gone before, that we finish on a complete turkey. The title track is another instrumental-of-sorts which lasts precisely 6 minutes - and all of them are awful. While the other ten tracks on this album have the feeling of being perfectly constructed, endlessly tinkered with until they were satisfied, this sounds like an outtake from a jamming section, being drowned in a toilet. It's a pathetic piece of self-indulgence, all echoes and effects which serve no purpose at all, except to annoy you.

As we shall discover, Big Calm is by no means and criteria Morcheeba's best album. However, there is so much good stuff on here that stands up on its own that no self-respecting critic can sweep this aside as a stopgap between the trip hop of Who Can You Trust? and the high-paced pop of Fragments Of Freedom (2000). All the elements which made Morcheeba a transatlantic success are here - the meticulous textures in the music, the serene and soulful voice of Skye, and the dedication to technical perfection which keeps them so refreshing and so lasting. Big Calm is an album that will either chill you into a nirvanic state or make you put your head close to the speakers, just to hear the sheer genius of what the Godfrey brothers have achieved.

3.82 out of 5
¹ 'Morcheeba Biography' (2000) - Accessed on December 11 2007.

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