Martina Topley-Bird first came to attention as part of the Bristol Trip Hop scene appearing on Tricky’s critically acclaimed Mercury Prize nominated debut album Maxinquaye (1995) . Tricky allegedly ‘discovered her’ sitting on a wall near his house. She sang on his first 3 albums and they have a child together. In 2003 she released her first solo album Quixotic to critical acclaim and another Mercury Music Prize nomination.
Tricky is seemingly uncomfortable with the ‘Trip Hop’ tag but this Bristol scene has spawned a whole host of bands in the genre, namely Massive Attack, Portishead and Morcheeba. Quixiotic extends itself beyond the genre with rock and electronic influences. The album opens with a short intro that sounds like African blues and then Need One, and it’s a stand out track on the album incorporating all the influences mentioned ( Mark Lanegan and Josh Homme guest). It’s a powerful moody, Rock, Trip Hop, Electronic, dancey masterpiece complimented by Topley-Bird’s seductive vocals.
The soulful acoustic Anytime defies the genre categorisation but maintains the smoky mood and mixed influences, odd little noises break out of the mix, poking through the acoustic guitar, giving the track an off kilter appeal, making it different.
Soulfood has an enticing beat and soulful feel with flute and Fender Rhodes. When I hear this I wonder why Topley-Bird isn’t huge? All the elements are there, her singing could be from the classic sixties soul era all updated in a backing track for a new generation. In 2003 when she was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize other nominees were Radiohead, Coldplay, Eliza Carthy, The Darkness, Lemon Jelly, The Thrills, Floetry, Soweto Kinch and Terri Walker – and Dizzee Rascal was the winner. It seems this was her highest profile even though she has made more albums to seek out, The Blue God 2008 and Some Place Simple 2010.
The third track on the album is Lullaby and it incorporates an instrumental loop and what sounds like a guitar bought in the southern states in thirties. The side-stick rhythm holds the track together and some strange noises appear but again it’s Topley-Bird’s vocal, her melody and production ideas that make the track a success.
The edgy Too Tough To Die is written with Belfast DJ/composer David Holmes – a treated rock riff on repeat, it’s an anarchic romp that may owe something to the fifties and that in essence is the secret of the album – it’s all mixed up with a thread, not an easy achievement.
Sandpaper Kisses sounds like a Spaghetti Western set in the South Pacific. Brooding and simplistic rumbling groove, honeyed vocals and trembling string trills that might be strummed piano wire, programming that never gets stiff and dense soundscapes, exotic instruments, strings and samples galore that guide a soothing melody.
Ragga brings in Tricky as co-rapper and and writer. A complex rhythm pattern with a subtle cacophonous background, it’s almost modern Eno, that is the Eno of the four vocal albums showing once again how ahead of his time he really was.
Some early Eno IDMA short takes here:
Lying has a sampled beat and close vocal, the lyrics seem to be relationship analysis on all the songs. Trumpet in the high end and sub-bass at the other end, it’s almost Reggae without the guitar stabs but it’s soulful too, so it’s Trip Hop, Soul, Reggae as she defies the genres again but still maintains the feeling of the record as a whole.
I Wanna Be There is a gigantic leap into another world, uptempo, frantic, slashing guitar, manic drum rolls and effected vocals for a scary 1.53 – even with this tangent she never loses the thread.
I Still Feel has that scratchy sample crackle across an infectious bass groove, irresistible catchy melody and descending chords that spread out into an intoxicating chorus.
Ilya is grinding awkward robot with a heart, breaking out into cinemascope strings and then back to dark small corners with wires and electronics – it’s like a claustrophobic electronic workshop on the vast open sea.
The album closes with Stevie’s (Days Of A Gun), vocals soar into the ether, dark strings give drama, cold programmed beats and bass synth surges push forwards and all the while Topley-Bird weaves her magic over the top of the impenetrable backing tracks with consummate ease like a butterfly negotiating a strong wind, always managing to land on the flower.
This is an album you probably missed. Find it, listen to it, submerge yourself in its elaborate net and sway to its simplicity.