Leave it to Morcheeba to be the cause for never-ending critical discomfort. Of all the acclaimed groups birthed by the “Bristol” trip-hop sound of the early ‘90s—an exclusive group that includes such unquestionable luminaries as Massive Attack, Smith & Mighty, Tricky and Portishead—Morcheeba have always been considered the underachievers. Whereas many of their peers quickly shot off into increasingly dense and hypnotically psychedelic terrain, Morcheeba were content to hew close to the realms of pop, their hip-hop beats laced not with paranoia-inducing horse tranquilizers but sweet urban melodies and jazzy tempos. Every subsequent Morcheeba release since their debut, 1996’s Who Can You Trust?, has steered closer and closer to the Platonic ideal of sophisticated, adult pop. As you can imagine from this description, the critics were not amused.
From Brixton to Beijing was released in conjunction with last year’s Parts of the Process anthology, which compiled the highlights of their first four albums and chronicled their rather baffling journey from second-rate trip-hoppers to a second-rate adult contemporary band. OK, that may have been harsh: I actually like some of Morcheeba’s later stuff. But based on the evidence of this DVD, the band has gone out of their way to expunge most of the novelty from their sound in pursuit of the kind of essentially European mature pop sound that has never played well in America. This is the kind of music that groups like Texas, the Beautiful South and Robbie Williams make: languid, arch and just slightly sensual, but with every single rough-edge sanded off to present an eminently palatable surface. It sells by the boatload in Europe, but they can’t give the stuff away here (with the strange and singular exception of Dido, who seems to do well enough).
I was still hopeful that this would be an interesting concert, considering the fact that they have written a handful of good songs in the past few years, in addition to having produced a generally innocuous body of work that could probably stand a reappraisal one of these days. Well, my hopes were immediately dashed by the fact that their live accompaniment is only one step up from a particularly grating wedding band. Whatever Morcheeba’s not-insubstantial musical talents may be, they are not served well by these arrangements. This reminds me of the kind of backing group you always see touring with folks like Sting and his ilk in the rock star aristocracy. These are all infinitely competent musicians, but their playing is so tepid and uninvolved as to be sluggish. Their celebrity bandleaders have given them exact instructions as to how to play every note, and their playing reflects an absolute lack of engagement in the material. What could have been arresting torch-songs become blank AOR-lite with unspectacular arrangements.
It’s not all bad. Vocalist Sky is usually pretty good, although she rather pitifully showcases her limitations with a rote cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” (not a song for the faint of heart). Ross Godfrey’s guitar playing is surprisingly crisp. Paul Godfrey, the final third of the trio at Morcheeba’s heart, mans the turntables. Here is where the group’s worst impulses come to the fore: the hip-hop and house elements which defined their early sound have been whittled down to mere cameos, scratched flourishes at the bridge before the chorus.
The best song on the DVD is a performance of “What New York Couples Fight About”, featuring an electrifying cameo appearance by Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner. When he steps on stage to perform his duet with Skye, there’s electricity in the air that sets the rest of the set to an even greater disadvantage. This track is a great example of what the band can do when they want: daring, thematically adventurous pop without any of the bland featurelessness that marks the rest of their performance.
Their Brixton performance is appended by a short documentary on their concert tour of China (hence the Beijing of the title). It’s a pretty superfluous document unless you’re an obsessive fan (of which there are, I am sure, many). The fact is that regardless of what I think, Morcheeba are the type of band that plays all across the world, even piercing the veil of Communist China, in front of hundreds of thousands of screaming fans. They are massively popular everywhere, and they’ve even gone Gold in the US, which is no mean feat for a British group of their pedigree. However, despite this fact, the tepid performances on From Brixton to Beijing seem as good a reason as any to say that I’m just not very interested in Morhceeba anymore.