Listen to this track by scene-solidifying Bristolian trip-hop trio Portishead. It’s “Glory Box”, the closing track to their Mercury Prize-winning 1994 album Dummy. That release set the music press alight with praise even before the band cinched the prize, of course. Part of what it achieved was to shed light on the scene in Bristol which had been brewing for some time by 1994, and before the term “trip-hop” was widely used.
That “Bristol sound” as it was known focused on an amalgam of musical ingredients that certainly included hip hop, but also sixties soundtrack music, dub, soul, jazz, and the blues, among others. The magic to be found in Portishead’s music, with “Glory Box” being a fine example, was that it was very difficult to tell which texture was laid down by the band live in the studio, and which textures they’d sampled from vintage vinyl. There are no seams here on that front, just pure atmosphere.
In this, Portishead were the spearhead for a trend that would become de rigueur for many acts for the rest of the decade and beyond, which was to tie disparate musical landscapes together with a flair for the cinematic. And it proved too that sampled music could do what many traditional genres of music could do, which was to evoke a unified sense of narrative that connects with the human experience in some way. Read more
Listen to this track by Bristolian trip-hop representatives along with one-time Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil chanteuse Elizabeth Fraser. It’s “Teardrop”, the second single off of their, well, massive 1998 album Mezzanine. It remains to be their most commercially succesful set. Not bad for the supposed difficult third album, although it would prove to be difficult in other ways.
By the time of this album’s release, a couple of things had changed. First, trip hop as a genre was morphing, including more ambient electronica textures and traditional rock/pop structures. Second, things had become tense between the three members of the band, with conflicting priorities and contradictory directions in the studio delaying this album’s release. Founding member Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles would depart during this period, due to the dreaded “creative differences”. One of those differences was being voted down for his assertion that the band should work with another singer on this track instead of Fraser; Madonna, who was excited to work with Massive Attack on this song. What would that have sounded like?
Yet, this song belied all the strife that surrounded the making of this record, in part thanks to the distinct and serene quality of Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal, with lyrics written by her. Those lyrics have been (mis)heard and (mis)interpreted by listeners many years after its release. Maybe what makes this song so special is that it somehow goes past literal meaning completely anyway, and moves into an area of meaning where words aren’t even the point. Read more
Listen to this track by London-based trip-hopping downtempo trio with a feel for the blues Morcheeba. It’s “Part Of The Process”, a 1998 single from their second album Big Calm. The album was a breakthrough hit, scoring platinum sales in the UK, and respectable ones abroad as well.
The sound of the band is taken from various sources, emanating from each member of the group; singer Skye Edwards’ soul background, guitarist Ross Godfrey’s interest in the blues and psychedelia, and producer and lyricist Paul Godfrey, Ross’ brother, bringing in electronic and hip hop texture to the whole.
This song is a solid example of a more pop-oriented mainstream direction, designed to set them apart from a scene they felt would eventually be stuck in the era. Of course, then they were labeled “post-trip hop” by the press. But, they were making interesting music, with some unexpected ingredients and contrasts that are indispensable to each other. Read more
Listen to this track by self-professed Material Girl turned duchess of adult-oriented dance pop, Madonna. It’s the William Orbit-abetted track “Drowned World/Substitute For Love” as taken from 1998’s Ray of Light, as close as Madonna ever got to confessional singer-songwriter self-reflection, albeit in an ambient electronic dance milieu. Yet, this song is not without a sizeable portion of melodic gravity. Let those who dismiss her work as lightweight and uninteresting aural confectionary take note.
Madonna started off in the New York dance club subculture, and built herself up with the help of several people on the scene. Even from those early days, she seemingly possessed a savant-like skill for marketing in the video age. As a result, Madonna became what many would consider to be a cultural icon.
Along with that keen eye for the market, she understood well that the pop world is constantly shifting, changing, deking out even the most savvy of artists. As audiences age, and as musical trends morph over the decades, many artists have been left behind. When considering such a position, the smartest artists can read the writing on the wall even before it fully materializes. And they know who to turn to when it does.
By the end of the 90s, such a person to turn to for Madonna was British dance producer/artist William Orbit, who would help Madonna deliver a mid-career masterpiece, with both critical and commercial acclaim. But, even if it is very tempting to look at the resulting album Ray of Light solely as a tactic to stay in the charts, what a song like “Substitute For Love” reveals is that Madonna wanted to close the distance between herself and her audience in more ways than just record sales.
Listen to this song by British ambient soul-jazz duo Zero7 with a prime cut off of their 2001 debut album. It’s “Likufanele”, and the album in question is one of my favourites of that year, Simple Things.
It’s been argued that this band created some momentum in a new form of easy listening. I suppose that can be argued pretty well. It’s true that Zero 7 can now be heard in places that you once found a lot of easy listening stalwarts. Yet, if this is the case, then maybe easy listening just got more interesting. Let’s take a look at this piece which seems to be mixing African choral music, with 60s Burt Bacharach orchestral pop, with 90s trip-hop. As much as I hate the idea of ‘functional’ music, if you’re stuck in a dentist office waiting to be fitted for headgear, you could do worse than hearing this piece.
But, before you think I’m damning this tune with faint praise, I’d like to say that there is something about this song, and the whole album in fact which just resonates with people – even with music snobs like myself. Here’s my theory.
There are people who go about their lives not noticing music playing. When they’re at the supermarket, the coffee shop, the gym, the spa, wherever, if there’s music playing they don’t notice it unless it’s innocuous enough to cease to ‘function’ wherever it happens to be playing. Zero 7 works for them, creating a mood for them to ignore the music to. Then, there’s people like myself.
I notice music everywhere. Every place I go, I am distracted by it. I can’t ignore it. So, for me it has to be good, not just functional, not just aural wallpaper as I go about my daily life. It can’t be boring, either. Zero 7, and ‘Likufanele’ (translated from the Zulu, meaning ‘it suits you’…) work for me, too. I love the enmeshing of the voices as they build-up, the warm sounds of the flugelhorn and the vibraphone, the sumptuous strings, the jazzy 70s flute, the spacey synths, and the Fender Rhodes piano. And I like the repeating chord structure, that seems to activate a memory of childhood which I can’t quite put my finger on.
Some types of music are easier to listen to than others. But, just because its ‘easy’ like this, it doesn’t mean it has to be uninteresting too. I think it takes a certain amount of skill to be able to strike that type of balance. And that is the key to Zero 7’s success.