Rhythm Dissection 

Tricky musical stylings

Tricky musical stylings

Drum-n-bass—a variant of jungle, a producers’ art that originated in the London clubs and hit U.S. shores last year—is unique among popular and semi-popular dance musics. For one thing, the drums don’t just keep time, they lead. As with the talking drums of West Africa, everything—bass, keys, voice—revolves around the beating of the percussion’s improvisational heart. The rhythms of the bass and drums aren’t even tied to each other. But it’s precisely this freedom, especially the sense of independence and remoteness it can create, that makes drum-n-bass an ideal vehicle for conveying feelings of absence and longing—virtually every type of broken connection imaginable.

Affective distance colors both Everything but the Girl’s Walking Wounded (Atlantic) and Nearly God (Durban Poison), a one-off project conceived and produced by wunderkind Tricky. Though the two records couldn’t be more dissimilar, each draws on jungle’s abstract rhythms—as well as their hip-hop, techno, and dub antecedents—to evoke spiritual and emotional separation. It’s unlikely that either would have been made before the emergence of drum-n-bass.

EBTG’s Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt spent over a decade making lush, engaging music. But while their cocktail jazz and samba moves were years ahead of the current lounge and worldbeat curves, the pleasures of EBTG’s music were always a bit ephemeral—like hip background music for dinner parties.

What a difference a deejay makes. Had it not been for a couple of left-field techno connections—Thorn’s cameos on Massive Attack’s Protection and the Todd Terry remix of EBTG’s “Missing,” both from 1994—the duo might have drifted off into the Muzak/pop-lite ether. But “Missing” went on to become a club and radio smash, spending a year in the pop top 100. Suddenly, EBTG had reinvented itself.

Walking Wounded isn’t so much a departure from Thorn and Watt’s best work as a consolidation; as some of the lyrics suggest, it might even be considered a coming of age. It also finds the couple riding the heady rush that a playful medium like drum-n-bass affords. The title track/first single, for example, drapes an enchanting Nelson Riddle-style string arrangement over misterioso piano, creating a perfect—and perfectly dissonant—setting for Watt’s lovelorn lyrics. “Wrong” offers for the visceral thrill of the best Latin and disco music, while the juxtaposition of jungle beats and cascading piano in “Big Deal” establishes just the right tension for Thorn’s laconic yet pointed vocals.

Thorn’s range has always been somewhat limited. But like Karen Carpenter or Dionne Warwick—“Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” would make stunning EBTG cover choices—her impassive delivery is not. Never in a hurry, Thorn expresses all manner of emotion in the slightest turn of phrase or fluctuation of pitch. Indeed, Walking Wounded finds her alternately pensive (“Single”), contrite (“Wrong”), and reckless (“Before Today”). It’s on “Mirrorball,” however, that she’s at her commanding best. Here, with the soulful ease of Shirley Alston, Thorn transforms a tender reflection on innocence and experience into a dignified, unassuming anthem.

Nearly God is almost anti-romantic by contrast, a collection of what Tricky calls “brilliant demos” that portrays a world in which violence, intolerance, and HIV hardly make intimacy worth the effort. The music, which often dispenses with conventional song structures, establishes this alienation from the outset: A stagnant violin grinds a cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Tattoo” to a halt as it’s just getting started. “Keep Your Mouth Shut” is equally daunting, as Tricky garbles, “Father will you feed me/Mother I’m hungry,” over and over beneath what sounds like the roar of subway trains. Elsewhere, on “Poems,” a nagging rimshot pings like a leaky tenement faucet, while a solitary guitar string pierces through the squalid din. Harsh and static—“pre-millennial tension,” as the title of Tricky’s forthcoming solo album puts it—these songs are also strangely compelling. Possessed of their own creaky groove, they’re the urban equivalent of Eno’s ambient pastoralism.

Tricky is also fond of calling his music “hip-hop blues,” and several of Nearly God’s songs—written and sung with au courant divas Neneh Cherry, Bjork, and Alison Moyet—bear him out. Moyet’s incantatory performance on “Make a Change,” for example, channels both Howlin’ Wolf and Memphis Minnie, while “Together Now” features Cherry’s best Tina Turner moan backed by what sounds like a 21st-century edition of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. More cosmopolitan, but equally steeped in the blues, “Black Coffee” finds Tricky’s 18-year-old protégé Martine singing her heart out like some unlikely combination of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.

Tricky’s musical/moral vision is too singular to pigeonhole with any movement or style of music. “I’m already on the other side,” he whispers with characteristic humility on “I Be Your Prophet.” And he’s right: He’s a force of nature more than anything else. But Nearly God’s haunting power can also be attributed to the rhythmic abstraction and experimentation that drum-n-bass encourages, especially the way the music reflects the expressions of resistance that Tricky believes are necessary for surviving—and, perhaps, connecting—in an unsafe world. Though overly didactic, the following passage from “Yoga,” the second-to-last song on the record, sums up this worldview best: “Man will survive the harshest conditions/And stay alive through difficult conditions/So make up your mind for me/And walk the line for me/If you want my love/If you want my love.”

Rock ’n’ roll has stagnated plenty over the past few years, but, with the likes of punk, hip-hop, and music from nations of the Third World giving it a periodic shot in the arm, it probably isn’t in danger of becoming obsolete before it turns 50 during the next decade. And if records like Walking Wounded, Nearly God, and Timeless—the landmark 1995 LP made by Goldie, the closest thing jungle has to a superstar—are any indication, there’s a good chance that drum-n-bass and its future incarnations will play a role in rock’s ongoing reinvention.

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