Is there a musical genre more wrongfully deprecated than trip-hop? These days, it seems as though trip-hop has become an automatic code word for hard-boiled suck among the music intelligentsia. It conjures up images of yuppies, and of expensive coffee being placed on expensive coffee tables next to unread Neruda anthologies and the keys to the Beamer. There's some Morcheeba playing softly on the stereo, or is it Lamb? I can't tell because someone in the next room is laughing wryly, making it difficult to hear the soft music.
This state of events is a far cry from Blue Lines or Pre-Millennial Tension or even Dummy. Remember when Massive Attack were the biggest group around? No? Can you remember a time when Tricky wasn't singing XTC numbers? (Nothing against XTC, but "Dear God" is a far cry from "Hell Is Just around the Corner.") You see, I remember a time when Tricky suffered from some weird nutritional disorder that made him secrete vertiginous black depression from his every pore. That was trip-hop -- dark music from the dankest, dubbiest corner of Hell. My favorite trip-hop album is probably the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Listen to that album late at might and tell me you don't feel the devil himself breathing down your neck.
(Of course, it would be irresponsible of me not to point out that I'm in the minority here. A lot of trip-hop purists cling to the early days of the genre, when the template hewed more closely to the hip-house hybrid of Soul II Soul. I can certainly see their point, but I also believe that Mezzanine is Massive Attack's best album. Trip-hop really took off for me when it swallowed the paranoid atmosphere of Jamaican dub along with the harshly sinister elements of drum 'n' bass -- it became primeval music from the forests of the id, what King Tubby would have produced if he had taken massive amounts of speed along with his ganja.)
The problems began when trip-hop met acid jazz. In a lot of ways, you could say the two genres tongue kissed each other to death. As soon as the slurred, muddy trip-hop beat met the sophisticated and urbane new-jazz sound, it was all over. Suddenly, trip-hop had to be polite. The blistering, nigh-Satanic fervor of Tricky was replaced by the earnest, melancholic stylings of Louise Rhodes. Nothing against Lamb -- I actually quite like Lamb -- but the ascent of the cosmopolitan was the death-knell of trip-hop as an anarchic force of evil in a staid musical world. Sure, Fear of Fours is a masterpiece, but sometimes you just want to hunt down your enemies and lock them in a closet with Tricky's unintelligible Angels with Dirty Faces on an endless loop throughout the claustrophobic darkness.
So the newest release from Vienna's own Sofa Surfers finds the venerable collective on the horns of a dilemma. The smooth, just slightly chilled dub of Kruder & Dorfmeister has redefined trip-hop in every way that counts, making the union between the jazzy and the dubby a fait accompli. But even though the Sofa Surfers are now signed to the Thievery Corporation's Eighteenth Street Lounge label -- and of all the many new-school trip-hop producers, the Thievery Corporation has most assiduously acted the Saint Peter to K&D's dub Messiah -- they still remember the days when trip-hop was a decidedly dark proposition.
See the Light is, however, a confusing release. Those who follow the more obscure undercurrents of worldwide music know the confusion that is inevitably caused when domestic releases do not jive exactly with foreign releases. It's a problem as old as the Beatles. The press kit claims that See the Light is a compilation of highlights off of their first three albums, cherry-picked by the Thievery Corporation with rare remixes and new collaborations. Unfortunately, this isn't quite true. This album features one track apiece (and one of them a remix, no less!) from their first two albums, Transit and Cargo, but features almost the entirety of their never-domestically-released third album Encounters -- all but three out of thirteen tracks. It's a curious package, to say the least: why not simply release Encounters in the US with the new and rare remixes as bonus tracks? It's an oddly conceived package.
But, packaging qualms aside, the music itself is very good. The sole representative track from their second album, "Long Bone", is a pleasingly dank dub cut that serves as a perfect introduction to their atmospherically dense sound. The selections from Encounters represent a plausible expansion of their signature sound -- less dense than the oblique Cargo, and definitely influenced by the avant-garde hip-hop of groups such as the Antipop Consortium and Prefuse 73. Tracks like "Twisted Tongue", featuring DJ Collage, offer the kind of abrasive, combatively jazzy sound you'd expect to hear if Jagz Kooner remixed Us3.
The most disappointing tracks on the disc are actually the remixes. The Richard Dorfmeister mix of "Sofa Rockers" is good, but if you've got a copy of The K&D Sessions (and I'm sure you do), then you already have this track. The Thievery Corporation mix is a severe letdown, tacked on at the end of the album like a vestigial flipper. Their lounge interpolations of K&D's trademark dubscapes are usually good but after listening to an album's worth of the Sofa Surfer's best material, the Thievery Corp. seems remarkably bloodless.
It's probably too late for trip-hop as a genre. Even Smith & Mighty, who practically wrote the book on the intersection between thrashing jungle and deep Jamaican bass, long ago turned away from the genre they defined with Bass Is Maternal in favor of the smooth nu-soul of Life Is.... A good album -- or compilation, whatever you want to call it -- by the Sofa Surfers is hardly going to undo the damage that has already been done. But a good album is still a good album, and this is undoubtedly a good album.