Friday, 17 October 2008

Top 100 Albums - #17: Fragments Of Freedom (2000)

Morcheeba's third and final entry is Fragments Of Freedom, the follow-up to the highly successful and critically acclaimed Big Calm (1998, #54).
Add ImageAfter the tentative release of two EPs in the second half of 1995 (Trigger Hippie and Music We Can Hear respectively), Skye Edwards & the Godfrey Brothers set out their trip-hop stall with their debut album, Who Can You Trust? (1996). The album received little real airplay but attracted the praise of critics, with calling it "a hauntingly atmospheric - and quite terrific - debut."¹ After spending much of 1997 on tour, the band returned to the studio to record the follow-up. The resulting album, Big Calm, saw more poppy elements introduced to compliment their roots, a reflection perhaps of the declining fortunes of bands like Portishead and Massive Attack. The more successful tours and reviews for this album convinced the band to continue moving in a pop direction.

'World Looking In' is an enticing opener, beginning with Skye slowly whispering her way into the mix. The departure from the previous album is marked: the production is glossier and Skye is more syrupy in her tones. But we still get a decent, albeit spartan set of lyrics, delivered with a whistful feeling of abandon. The more light-hearted, whimsical mood is underscored in the final minute by the acoustic guitar, hinting at its widespread use on Charango (2002, #18). In all, this is a good start to the album, setting out the new sound without being overbearing.

'Rome Wasn't Built In A Day' has a lot more to live up to. Being the first single, it has to secure your attention so that the rest of the album becomes desirable. It doesn't disappoint. As on the previous track (the second single), we get a relatively simple set of lyrics, but these are made up for and counterpointed beautifully by both Skye and the brass section. With its multi-tracked female vocals, this has a gospel feel to it which helps to distinguish it from other featherweight singles of the day. It's a very catchy little number, which sung by anyone else would have been forgettable, but in the hands of Skye it is very, very good.

Having got our full attention, 'Love Is Rare' takes things up a notch, drawing us slowly into the rest of the album. It builds on the previous track, keeping the brassy, flashy feel but bringing the drums further forward. The lyrics remain simplistic and teasing, as in the first verse:

You've got a rocket in your pocket
Why can't you just let me be?
Have you no eyes in your sockets
Or are you just pleased to see me?

Beneath this rather cosmetic veneer, however, there is a proper song underneath. The vocals may be relatively anodyne, but they have a feistiness, at least in the first half, which drives them forwards and prevents the track from becoming boring. Meanwhile, the bombastic drums and heavy, funky bass will keep your head bobbing long after this has finished.

As good as 'Love Is Rare' is, it can't hold a candle to the next track. 'Let It Go' sees Skye relaxing back into a more silky mode of singing, neatly juxtaposed against the heavy sounds emanating from behind her. The verses are very well-written, ridigly structured like a lot of Morcheeba tracks but still capable of titillating you. But it's the choruses that properly impress. The trumpets sing out between lines as Skye pushes the limits of her voice, achieving something wonderful along the way. In the bridge we get a great 1970s synthesiser solo from Ross Godfrey, and in spite of the inexplicable sampling in the fade-out, this is a properly brilliant track, not least because it makes you feel happy without feeling guility at the same time.

'A Well-Deserved Break' is as hard a track to like as it is to dislike. On one level, it's a pleasant, chilled-out workout on acoustic and steel drums. It's a loop at heart, like most Morcheeba instrumentals, but it feels like it is going somewhere. In the end however, this goes on for far too long, as if the band had inserted it to meet the length requirements of their label.

'Love Sweet Love', meanwhile, is a million miles from filler. It's a lot dancier than 'Let It Go', but Paul Godfrey's scratching and quicker tempo are beautifully matched by Ross's bubbly electric guitar, while percolates through the foreground like a Joe Satriani solo played at double speed. In the verse, the tempo is taken down with some soft jazz drumming, giving Skye all the room she needs - and she doesn't let you down, producing a dance track with a personality as well as a kick. And when the male vocal part comes in - courtesy of Mr. Complex - it doesn't ruin the track as Pace Won's work did on Charango. It's a stonker of a track.

Unfortunately, the next track is less of a stonker and more of a stinker. 'In The Hands Of The Gods' features Biz Markie on vocals and is quite simply the most atrocious song this band has ever produced. Not only does this have the worst intro ever written for any song, but Markie is an appalling lyricist, producing rhymes so embarrassingly poor that they might have come from a white man trying it in the 1980s. It's insanely terrible, bad enough to make you cringe and spill your guts, that such a thing should end up on a Morcheeba album.

If, however, you have patience and guts still left over, you are rewarded with two amazing tracks. The first, 'Shallow End', is in many ways indicative of the new direction of the band. While the previous two albums were dark, heavy and serious, now this band is all about having fun and being relaxed. Skye sums this up as she sings I'm through with feeling deeply. But there is more to this song than self-referencing and reflection. It's a love song at heart, about two people in a relationship looking to take things a little easier. As before, we get some great guitar from R. Godfrey, and the whole thing has a bright, summery feel which makes you want to fling the windows wide open and share your joy with the world.

The other masterpiece, 'Be Yourself', is a little more subtle and a lot more downbeat. At 3:16 it would have been a better choice for a second single than 'World Looking In', largely because it feels more compact and amenable. It's not a lightweight though, by any means; it may have lyrics which are easy on the ears, but there's plenty of stuff going on behind Skye to hold your attention. We get more lovely acoustic, and a fair bit of synthesiser work passed off as brass. It's hardly the most intellectual, thought-provoking song on the planet, but Morcheeba's substance and success as a band has always been built upon their knack for finding a groove. Here they have taken a great groove, shrouded it in great musicianship, and the result is amazing.

'Coming Down Gently' rather lives up to its name: it's not quite as good as the previous tracks, but it's not a massive drop in quality in the way that 'A Well-Deserved Break' would seem. It is slower-paced, and a looped track, but interestingly it still feels like it's going somewhere. You learn to spot the different phrases as they dance backwards and forwards, but the band have left in little touches like the flute solo and the mellotron-esque keyboard at the end, to sustain you in your relaxing trek.

'Good Girl Down' is another amazing track from a band truly at its peak. Skye has often been criticised for not being able to convey a range of emotions in her voice, but once you hear this you will leap at the chance to disagree.² Where before she was merely sultry, or alluring, or teasing, or even just plain sexy, here she sounds feisty, and more aggressive. In fact, this track could almost be described as a light-hearted feminist anthem; the vocals are still sung with beauty, but there is a sting in the tale because they reflect a desire to stand up and be recognised. The presence of Bahamadia on this track helps to bolster this image, as do the elegant but stricken strings and snazzy production. This feels delicate and tight, and yet wild and uncaged, making it something very rare indeed.

The title track, which closes the album, is in true Morcheeba tradition a looping instrumental-of-sorts. While not as bad overall as its counterpart on Big Calm, it's hardly a stand-out. The hi-hat at the start is ugly, the guitar meanders aimlessly and the drums sound as unoriginal and as badly produced as they do on a Beatles track (i.e. very poor). It's a tragic way to finish what is otherwise a promising album.

There are, in many ways, a lot of things wrong with Fragments Of Freedom. The production is a little too glossy; the lyrics are not always up to scratch; and it contains one of the worst songs ever written. As I said in my review of Charango, if you view albums more as an experience than as a collection of songs, then the follow-up to this will be more your sort of thing. Even so, there is so much good music on offer here that it seems a shame not to recognise what an achievement this album is. The few let-downs aside, it is a hugely consistent body of work, and because each of the great tracks stand so well by themselves, you can listen to the songs in any order you choose - surely a boon in the playlist generation. Above all, though, this is the peak of Morcheeba's output simply because it is so much fun - you can dance to this album to your heart's content, or play it on a long drive without once getting bored. It is difficult to find music that can be both fun and substantial at the same time, making Fragments Of Freedom a rare thing indeed.

4.00 out of 5

¹ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, 'Who Can You Trust?', Accessed on December 8 2008.
² Nina Pearlmann, 'Morcheeba', Accessed on December 8 2008.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Top 100 Albums - #18: Charango (2002)

Morcheeba's penultimate chart entry is Charango, their fourth album and the last to feature Skye Edwards on vocals.
After the warm reception accorded to Big Calm (1998, #54), Morcheeba began to experiment with sounds outside of their trip-hop roots. The resulting album, Fragments Of Freedom (2000), was much more poppy in tone, meeting with poor reviews but the best sales of the band's career, along with a hit single, 'Rome Wasn't Built In A Day'. Following the tour to promote both album and single, the band signed to Warner Bros. Records - departing from Sire - and began to work on new material. To whet the fans' appetite, the group released Back To Mine (2001), a compilation album of artists that inspired the Godfrey Brothers. All the tracks were remixed and the album also featured 'On The Rhodes Again', an off-cut from Who Can You Trust? (1996).

Things couldn't start more perfectly. 'Slow Down' is a chilled-out classic, featuring all the ingredients that made Big Calm so compelling: rich production, smooth lyrics and a sultry performance from Skye. The track opens with a sweet duet between a cello and a guitar, the former subtlely rasping in the bass lines while the later whines sweetly through its highest registers. Skye's voice is as smoky and as teasing as it was on Big Calm, but all the tragedy present on that record has been replaced by a relaxed state of contentment. There is nothing logically wrong with this song - the production is flawless, the musicianship is brilliantly balanced, and nothing is allowed to drag or dominate unduly. It's an absolute treat of an opening track.

'Otherwise' can't really compete, but don't think that it's a bad song because of this. We get more strings (violins this time), but the feel is very different. Where 'Slow Down' was a laid-back chillout classic, this is a cool three-minute single. Well, three-and-a-bit. The lyrics are a lot more simply structured, but this just makes them catchier; the chorus in particular manages to be easily memorable while hanging on to some substance. Skye is given more room on this track, and responds by letting herself go just a little.

'Aqualung' is more fun, with funkier touches on the production and in the choice of instruments. The bass especially is given more room, coupling with the dance-y drums to drive the track forward. We get more strings too, serving up some sweet harmonies in between the multi-tracked vocals. Finally, we get a very nice flute solo in the middle, which keeps you on your toes. So often flutes can sound horrible on record, but once again the Godfrey Brothers prove themselves to be masters of the art.

'São Paulo' is probably the saddest track on this album. Being pop, there is only so much emotion that can be conveyed before it becomes overbearing and esoteric. Here Skye returns to singing his tears, lamenting that her life is one big cliché and regretting a past love. Her sultry tones blend beautifully with the harmonica, so that we are truly taken to the Brazilian shanty towns that surround the city. Everything about this track is marvellous, as once again we are confronted with perfect production: immaculate enough so that you can sit back and relax, but tantalising enough to let your ears wander.

The title track is the first glimpse we get on here on Morcheeba dropping the ball. Both title tracks on Big Calm and Fragments Of Freedom were empty and below-par instrumentals, with occasional lyrics shoved on in a vague attempt to sustain your interest. And this is no different. By the time Pace Won comes in with any lyrics, you're bored with the riffs and scratches, and so will struggle to notice.

Happily, however, we get our money's worth on the next track. 'What New York Couples Fight About' sees Skye dueting with Kurt Wagner, who half-whispers, half-croons his lyrics in a manner which is completely captivating. The two sets of vocals gel very nicely, so that you quickly ignore any weak links in the actual lyrics (of which there are few). This track is a little too long - at 6:16 it's the longest on the album - but as with 'Slow Down' there isn't much to drag this down or hold the duo back. Listen hard for the gorgeous lap steel in the second chorus.

'Undress Me Now' is the second single to be culled from the album, and kicks off the second half in some style. The strings are still there, as is the prominent dance-influenced bass, but we get some acoustic guitar added to the mix at the start. Perhaps this is an indication of Skye's differing styles, present on her first solo effort, Mind How You Go (2006, #24). It's not the most substancial song ever recorded, but it sits charmingly and comfortably amid the other tracks.

'Way Beyond' is the last truly great track on here, if not the last truly great track Morcheeba have produced to date. Skye is probably the only female singer who can take an opening line like Driving with your handbrake on/ But you can't smell the burning and turn it into a believable romance ode. This is clearly her song; not only is her performance more connected and more personal, but the instruments surrounding her have been arranged to compliment it perfectly. The casual, jazzy trumpet in the chorus, for instance, feels made for her voice, rather than just another backing part shoved on in the control room. It's a beautiful song, perfectly written and wonderfully served up.

Having gone all serious on us, Morcheeba bring back the fun factor with 'Women Lose Weight'. Guest vocalist Slick Rick takes the limelight in this tale about a man killing his wife, delivering in a macabre but surprisingly playful manner. It's very tongue-in-cheek, but it manages to carry itself off on the strength of its lyrics. The storyline isn't exactly as hard as Ulysses to follow, but it's well thought out, fits snugly into the rhythm and it doesn't try to be too clever, leaving most of the imagery to the listeners.

We then segue into 'Get Along', Pace Won's second guest spot on vocals. It's very different to the title track, but it still comes up short on content. Skye gives her all but the vocals are lazy and repetitive, and things don't improve when the male part comes in (fast as your pasta, anyone?). This is possibly redeemed by the guitar workout at the end, but even this isn't good enough. 'Public Displays Of Affection' is better, with Skye back on form and in a complaining mood. She bemoans kissing lovers, welded orally, turning it inwards as a statement to her perceived insignificance (I can't wait for my next rejection/ I'm always the first in the queue). The verse and chorus structure is still quite rigid, but there is enough going on to keep things moving.

As on the previous two albums, we close with an instrumental, and not an especially good one. 'The Great London Traffic Warden Massacre' may have a title lifted from psychedelic rock, but it feels like nothing of the sort. Instead it's a bouncy hotch potch of a number, borrowing little snippets from all over the place but never bringing them together into anything that feels like a coalesced whole. In essence it's a loop, in the same way that Pink Floyd's 'Terminal Frost' is a loop (see my review of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987, #62). But where that grows slowly, and sustains your interest throughout, this will see you sink slowly into sleep, wishing that it would stop.

Certain editions of the album feature a second disc, containing instrumental versions of all tracks. As a general rule they do not differ in quality from the standard versions, and as a result will not be of much interest to anyone who doesn't have a pressing interest in either sound engineering or karaoke. They do however serve a useful purpose as a passing contrast to the finished products, if only to remind us how integral Skye really is in the Morcheeba sound.

One complaint that could be made about Charango is that it is too complete, too serious. It is more grown-up and more refined than its predecessor, and some of the fun has gone. But something else has replaced the fun: a sense of contentment and purpose. If Fragments Of Freedom was like a white mural with pots of paint thrown over it - lots of fun but hardly the prettiest thing to behold - then this is Constable's The Hay Wain (1821) - a meticulous, perfectly crafted work of beauty, whose quality breeds a snobbish attitude. It is the culmination of all that made Morcheeba technically great, with production that is a million miles from their smoky, static-filled beginnings. It is not their finest album, because of the inconsistent vocal contributions and lack of brevity in parts of the lyrics, but there is no denying that the band have never sounded cleaner and brighter. As a collection of individual songs, all jostling for position, Fragments beats this hands down - but as an experience, Charango is by far the band's best album.

4.00 out of 5