City: Washington, DC Venue: The Black Cat Date: 2003-08-04
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, there will come a time when you'll stop in some hip-to-your-tax-bracket hotel bar for an after-work chocolate martini with a Ding Dong teetering on its rim. You'll hear a few smooth jazz piano chords and look up to find yourself face to face with the new millennium's answer to the piano bar: the trip hop house band.
There in the corner, crowded onto a tiny stage, lurk five or six black-clad gentlemen behind an elegant female dressed better than anyone else in the bar. Her voice is a whisper, the same cultured rasp of Portishead, Supreme Beings of Leisure, any of Tricky's sirens, Massive, Lamb, and any number of other acts whose work has appeared in the vital Trip Hop Fake Book. As the guitars, organs and synthesizers give off an echo-y, throbbing hum, as perfectly controlled a background as the sound of the air conditioning, this demure siren murmurs strings of maudlin, melancholy lyrics, her body movements as stiff as your martini.
Behind singer Blanca Rojas, a quintet of reserved, businesslike musicians hustle quietly between instruments. Each performs with equal precision on guitars, organ and synthesizer, manipulating rows upon rows of effects pedals with a nary a wasted a motion. Their are hushed and perfectly calm, placing a guitar gently on ground mid-song and stepping over to plunk out a few ethereal chords on one of several keyboards with a surefooted, workmanlike equanimity.
Though they work in mute, composed concordance, guitarist/keyboardists Hank Morton, Matthew Baker and Duane Pitre and bassist John Mattos each are wholly isolated in their efforts, communicating only with the instruments they hold. The most energetic movements come from drummer Geoff Hill who actually seems fully aware of the overall effect of their efforts. Though he hardly shifts from his role as a human drum machine, the force of his playing grounds this San Diego group's more airy, delicate compositions.
It's not Ilya's fault that trip hop become so predictable; you might as well blame Good Charlotte for the death of punk. Somehow a genre birthed only a decade ago has already been pared down to its essentials, the first albums released bearing the title instantly prototypes of scores of small-time Bjorks, though none nearly as inventive.
But perhaps the genre was predestined to come up dead in the water. After all, other subculture styles take years to hit the mainstream. From the moment the Verve label released a dj-remix compilation of jazz greats such as Nina Simone and Billie Holiday (whose "Strange Fruit" was re-envisioned as pure funeral dirge by Tricky) and I started finding copies of trip hop releases in Starbucks, I knew: trip hop was just too palatable. It was too similar in style to lounge and jazz -- on purpose, of course -- to be disliked by almost any age group. Who cared if the original listeners used Lamb CDs in conjunction with a few narcotics, isn't an Espresso Brownie just as sinful?
But paint-by-numbers adherence to style doesn't assure success. Acts such as Ilya, without a new hook of their own, just get lost among the growing ranks, relegated to smalltime gigs and bars on quiet Monday evenings. They might be acceptable while sharing a few drinks with friends, but they won't stick around in your head as long your hangover.
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