The new album from Martina Topley-Bird is tricky. Which is not to suggest that it’s Tricky. Although Tricky does feature. On two tracks. The album originally was Quixotic, and now it’s Anything. What was the intro, is now the outro. Three further songs have gone missing. It’s all a bit of a puzzle. It’s more than a little bit tricky.
Topley-Bird first came to light as the exotic vocalist and muse of Tricky on his 1994 masterpiece, Maxinequay . The original paranoid android, Tricky has seldom since scaled the heights of his solo debut, though when his intermittent brilliance has occasionally risen (such as on the devastating and beautiful “Makes Me Wanna Die” from 1996’s Pre-Millenium Tension) Topley-Bird was usually close at hand. Her distinctive vocal style has drawn a broad range of comparison, from Billie Holliday, Bjork, and Erykah Badu, all the way through Bristol-based stable-mate Beth Gibbons. Fans and critics alike lobbied long for a taste of Martina solo, so that when she ceased Tricky projects in 1998 and set to work on her own album, the air of anticipation was keenly felt. What followed, however, was not so much “anything”, as “nothing”.
Anything was four years in the making. It took a further year for release in the UK (as Quixotic), and a further year again to find outlet here in the States—re-mixed, re-shuffled, re-shaped, out on Palm pictures. Six years is a long gestation period for any record, and this one suffers for it more than most; the pity being that track to track, this is a fine record. If it disappoints, it is largely in sounding like a fine record from six or more years ago.
One can’t help but trace the album’s genealogy back to Maxinequaye. There are two tracks here featuring Tricky, “Ragga” and “Illya”, and either one might easily have been lifted from the former couple’s earlier shared glories. It’s good stuff, but the problem is that Maxinequaye is now ten years old, and its style of music, which once seemed likely to draw us strongly into the future has, shockingly, grown almost obtuse already—at least for now.
I’ve listened to this album a considerable number of times and I find worth in practically all the pieces on it, yet as a whole it is fragmented. You can feel the months, and sometimes the years between songs, sense the varying personnel—the writers, producers, musicians traipsing through the studio. That the album has been cut and re-arranged from its earlier incarnation raises immediate flags on what has clearly been a problem child. The cover artwork has also been substantially revised (not for the better), yet almost in spite of these difficulties, the music itself is a pleasure. It’s an album punctuated by lush production values and constantly held in sway by the iridescent beauty of the singer’s voice.
In point of fact, it is not Topley-Bird’s much discussed voice that makes her so distinctive a singer, but rather her unique phrasing. Holliday, Badu, Bjork: these are women who share nothing similar in the way of tonal range; instead, what they share is a quality of individuality—an irony, given that their names are regularly strung together for company and comparison. In Topley-Bird’s case, her unique qualities have much to do with an attitude and accent that are defiantly English. Here it appears most notably on “Ragga”, and “Need One”, and it is the same effect that previously brought distinction to her collaborations with Tricky.
Perhaps the most rewarding of the collaborations here is one with the always-interesting David Holmes. “Too Tough To Die” is the album’s outstanding track, utilizing a sampled, dark swamp-blues riff to induce a dangerous, stoned haze. With its heightened reliance on atmosphere, it doesn’t stray too far from the painfully coined “trip-hop” template, yet still manages to display a more contemporary zeal. Meanwhile at the other end of the scale, “Need One” deliberately breaks out of that poorly defined mould. The song is a somewhat guilty pleasure, a power pop ballad that offers more than a hint of glam and features Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan from Queens of the Stoneage. Along with “I Still Feel”, it sounds like summer, bright and uplifting—summer a few years ago, that is.
Clearly Ms. Topley-Bird works at her own pace, and there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly if you’ve no great ambition for “stardom”. The music she’s created here finds itself suddenly and decidedly out of fashion, but as anyone with a penchant for post-punk rock might currently tell you, fashions change. Fortunately quality more readily lasts. It’s with this in mind that you look to hear more from this rare and quixotic talent.