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 Skye's voice is as smoky and as teasing as it was on Big Calm, but all the tragedy present on that record has been replaced by a relaxed state of contentment.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