Tricky’s first two albums, the beguiling Maxinquaye and the foreboding Pre-Millennium Tension were as good as trip-hop got in the mid-‘90s. But with respect to Tricky, one of the greatest jolts a listener got from listening to both of those albums for the first time was hearing how Martina Topley-Bird would transform a song from great to astounding. I’m specifically thinking of her sly rap in “Brand New You’re Retro” or the heartbreaking “Makes Me Wanna Die”.
When Topley-Bird was no longer part of Tricky, the music geek speculation kicked in. What would Topley-Bird’s solo album be like? Would it be as great as other solo albums (think Björk’s Debut or Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) or would it even best those classics? So fans waited. And waited.
By the time her 2003 debut, Quixotic, was released, people had long since moved on to other music genres and singers. Sales-wise, the album barely made a ripple in the UK charts, though it won enough fans to be on the shortlist for that year’s Mercury Music Prize.
Her latest, Some Place Simple was made after Damon Albarn encouraged Topley-Bird to rerecord some of her previous songs with far less production. Some of the pre-release press wasn’t encouraging. It described the album as leaning toward a jazz-oriented sound. Not that Topley-Bird can’t do jazz, but it elicited images of an album that’s more suited for background music while you wait for that bartender to make you your third martini than an actual “album”.
While Some Place Simple is definitely easy on the ears and songs like “Too Tuff to Die” and “Kiss Kiss Kiss” seem to be custom made for piano bars, the album lifts itself out of the lounge ghetto by revealing new pleasures with repeated listens. After a slightly benign opener (“Baby Blue”), the first truly great song is revealed on the third track with “Lying”. Under a soft percussion, Topley-Bird croons “I’m lying with you/backsliding with you”. It’s a quiet triumph that disarms cynics who too easily drop the “has been” card on artists who move out of their “red hot” stage into a more long-term existence.
It’s hard not to draw some comparisons to Joanna Newsom on Some Place Simple, even though Topley-Bird has been on the scene for about a decade longer than Newsom. The nursery rhyme-type delivery of “Da Da Da” is quirky, but it lapses into cutesiness. The structure of the song can’t help but elicit comparisons to Minnie Ripertorn’s “Loving You” to the point where you expect to hear a high-pitched “ahhahhhhaha” midway through. At 1:20, the song is mercifully short. “Too Tuff to Die” is a more uptempo number, but it succumbs to a few big band clichés.
A few hiccups aside, Some Place Simple is a surprise because it’s a rare testament that when an artist starts to experiment with jazz, listeners needn’t always react with horror and disdain (see Sting). For fans of Topley-Bird, this is the album where her voice is at its most unadorned.