Morcheeba: Parts of the Process

Parts of the Process
Warner Bros.

If trip-hop is a sonic school of thought, then Morcheeba are not of it. Personally, I take issue with such need to compartmentalise anyway. One of the many problems with a sound-bite media culture and our need to pigeon-hole is that the moment an artist dares to explore new terrain they are often treated like they flew the coop entirely; they fall off the radar because we don’t have the attention span to explore with them, or else we’re unable to focus long enough to adjust our perception of who they are.

The “labels” we choose are another story. Within certain limits, the term “trip-hop” may have offered an accurate description of a sound influenced in equal parts by hip-hop and rave culture, but who now can use the term without a self-conscious smirk? “Trip-hop” could just as usefully describe a musical interlude on Sesame Street as a genre infected by heavy beats and samples. I’m not sure how the music was supposed to be served by such a categorisation, but I wonder also just how many bands fell into obsolescence at the moment the label did?

In the mid-nineties, down-tempo deities Portishead launched a flotilla of moody electronic acts fronted by wispy female vocalists. Their debut album may be a masterwork, but unfortunately its impact has diminished over the ensuing decade through a failure to follow up and develop. It ought to be universally recognised as one of the key works of the past 25 years, yet it has failed to resonate within the culture in the way that it should.

Morcheeba emerged in the shadow of that album, and were initially viewed by some as Portishead-without-the-angst. What they most obviously shared with Portishead was an affinity for languid beats and an enthusiasm for film soundtracks, yet they achieved a markedly greater longevity, blossoming into a band of economic versatility. Their recently released hits package, Parts of the Process, displays a surprising range of mood and emotion, along with considerable pop music sophistication.

Morcheeba are a band who, for the most part, you take for style over any particulars of substance. Given their formative influence by music for film, this shouldn’t necessarily be perceived as a knock. Film soundtracks in some part represent story by motif, or essence by atmosphere. Morcheeba’s earlier work displays a significant debt to the slide guitar sound of Ry Cooder, most particularly during his Paris, Texassoundtrack period. Yet for a London-based band (essentially, Paul Godfrey, beats and scratches; Ross Godfrey, guitars and keyboards; Skye Edwards, vocals) to co-opt and explore regional American music so early took a certain courage and curiosity. Indeed, 1998’s Big Calm was so successful because it dared to depart in fairly radical, unpredictable ways from its predecessor, 1996’s Who Can You Trust. It gave the band a definable integrity, showing immediately that they weren’t about to be shaped or defined by a single, trendy pop movement, even one that supposedly spawned them.

Wisely, the Parts of the Process compilation is not chronologically track-listed. It is a well-balanced collection, one that makes for a cohesive listening experience. It also highlights the band’s versatility in ways that may have been throttled had the collection been organised differently. Skye’s vocals, which from the very beginning appeared to hover on the brink of excessive sweetness, have, after all, managed to remain on the judicious side of saccharine satiation. She provides a tranquil beauty on Undress Me Now and Over and Over, and is balanced by the flounce-filled frolic of Be Yourself and Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day. There is a subdued moodiness to the title track and to Never An Easy Way , and these represent elements that Morcheeba came equipped with; they required little honing.

2003 marks the eight-year anniversary of Morcheeba coming together, and the prime creative life-span of most bands seems to top out at around that point (as a generality, this seems to hold faithfully true, even for artists as significant and diverse as the Beatles, the Stones, and Prince). Morcheeba may or may not add another worthwhile note, yet they have accomplished more than simply supplying the soundtrack to endless summer cocktail parties. This is a collection that will undoubtedly transpire to do just that, but it also offers worthwhile lessons on artistic integrity, lessons that plenty of “weightier” artists out there might do well to observe.