Music

Martina Topley-Bird: Anything

John Davidson

Martina Topley-bird

Anything

Label: Palm Pictures
US Release Date: 2004-07-27
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image