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This review is from: Maxinquaye (Audio CD)
Every generation has music that defines their era and in the mid-nineties it was the output of Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead that has the greatest resonance. Like watching 'This Life' these albums transport you to a specific time and place: pre-millenium, pre-9-11, pre-Blair... Although they coincided with the media-hyped emergence of Britpop and Radiohead's The Bends, it is the sound of the Bristol 'Holy Trinity' that is most redolent of that period. Twelve years on (I can't believe it!) I bought the CD having only owned the cassette (really) and not having listened to it of late. Whereas Portishead in particular had to contend with a plethora of interior imitators, Tricky's sound was harder to replicate, even superficially: the weed-induced paranoia, the sexual ambiguity and provocation, the muttered half-raps, the male-female vocals less in duet but rather hybrid forms of Tricky's own perverse identity. It has not (quite) lost any of its power, and still has to be considered one of the great albums of the period, even if a few tracks have dated a little.
'Overcome', the opener, I feel has suffered the worst. The lyrics recycled from Tricky's raps on Protection are sung blandly by his original muse Martina Topley-Bird, and the pan-pipes in the chorus seem so cliched now. It's garden variety trip hop and was surprising used as the closing track on Island's Tricky retrospective, A Ruff Guide (not the only discrepancy on that play list). 'Ponderosa' is still fantastic, even if the production sounds a little flat now, with a loop that sounds like Tom Waits playing on a skull drum kit in Haiti. Topley-Bird reminds us of how unique her voice sounded then (pre-Mike Skinner, pre-Lilly Allen), its Grange Hill sneer over Tricky's marajuana-psychosis lyrics: "underneath the Weeping Willow lies a weeping wino". 'Black Steel', for all its grungy cross-over appeal, remains a brilliant reworking of the Public Enemy original and one of the last great examples in the dying art of the cover version. The stoned and jaded (and recylced) lyrics on 'Hell is Round the Corner' complement the Isaac Hayes sample as effectively as Portishead's similar 'Glory Box', and feels strangely like the album's centrepiece. Oddly grandiose, but at the same time obscure, it was an odd choice for a single at the time but still stirs up some unusual feelings.
Superficially 'Pumpkin' is vapid trip hop in the mold of Overcome and a waste of Alison Goldfrapp's obvious talents, but it is given levity by the Smashing Pumpkins sample and Tricky's own near-comatose contributions. Its low-key finish - like wind-chimes rotating in slow motion to a beautifully blunted hip hop break - is a great end to the old cassette Side One. 'Aftermath', always the album's most overrated track and first single, started sounding dated by the time trip hop was in full swing, its low slung funk and 'jazz flute' too reminiscent of numerous other hideous 'chill out' acts. I can imagine this is what Tricky was subsequently trying to distance himself from on Pre-Milennial Tension. 'Abbaon Fat Tracks' is still startlingly provocative and erotic, not least for having Topley-Bird sing about anal sex and the general stickiness of the production: all warped soul and sitar exotica. Both sensual and pornographic, it reeks of sex and intimacy, as does the dissection of Tricky and Martina's relationship on 'Suffocated Love': "I keep her warm but we never kiss ... she cuts my slender wrist'. It is partly these tracks that make Maxinquaye so superior to its goatee-stroking bandwagon contemporaries, the use of soul and hip hop as an window into a private world. It makes the listener strangely complicit by forcing us into a queasily voyeuristic position; more simply, its a great sex album.
'You Don't' is still a wonderfully singular piece of soul that is suggestive of early Massive Attack and is without comparison on the album, while 'Strugglin' is a massive indulgence and a sign-post to Tricky's subsequent self-destructive inability to harness his talents into something listenable. The beautiful closer 'Feed Me' ends Side Two on a similar somnabulant note to the first side, slow-motion soul for the end of the 20th century to file next to Unfinished Sympathy. In conclusion then, its still brilliant, and not to be confused with much of the posturing Hoxton wine-bar background music being mass-produced at the time. One of the last truely original great albums.