I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist. And I don’t have much proof of what I’m about to say, but I think it has to be said — the reason that Tricky hasn’t been able to make a great album since Pre-Millenium Tension is because of the absence of Martina Topley-Bird. I’ll admit that Angels With Dirty Faces had its moments, but on the whole it was much grimier and harder to absorb than the smoother sounding Maxinquaye or more innovative Pre-Millenium Tension, and I think it has a lot to do with Tricky’s collaborations with then-protégé Topley-Bird, who added a much-needed sensuality to Tricky’s sci-fi trip-hop. After her departure from his repertoire, he was reduced to making records that were either too raw (Angels) or too mainstream (Blowback). There’s no debating the talent of the influential trip-hop producer, but without a foil to his eccentricities, it just seems like many of his attempts were a bit misguided.
So, with Topley-Bird out of the picture for seven years, Massive Attack reducing its number of core members to one, Beth Gibbons trying new styles and countless imitators failing to live up to the standards of the influential forerunners of the genre, trip-hop sort of faded into thin air, its elements showing up in practically everyone’s records, but never returning in a form as sublime as Dummy or Tension. And then, after a seven-year silence, Topley-Bird returned with her UK debut, Quixotic, released several months later in the states as Anything. I don’t know if purists would call it trip-hop, for sure, but I do know one thing — it’s really, really good.
Anything is proof of how good trip-hop is when it’s done right. Rather than open the album with a bombastic, ear-catching floor-banger, Topley-Bird seduces the listener with the sultry title track, a soothing love ballad that couples as first single. It’s a subtlety that often goes ignored in pop music, as sex is violently thrust upon the mainstream (no pun intended), rather than coyly introduced with discretion.
The second track, “Ragga,” is where the tempo picks up. Topley-Bird sings, “I love you so much, you make me do things I don’t normally do,” in a sultry rasp over drum and bass beats, while former collaborator Tricky adds a few verses. “Need One,” however, sees Topley-Bird singing over some hefty guitar courtesy of rock’s most ubiquitous hired gun, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. And the next song, “Soul Food,” sees the British singer change course, yet again, to more straightforward soul sung over a rumbling, fuzzy beat.
On Anything, Martina Topley-Bird proves that she’s capable of just about, well, anything. She goes from soulful balladeer to trip-hop diva to hard rock frontwoman and everything in-between. Anything may not be Topley-Bird’s debut to the world, but it’s a landmark in establishing her identity as a formidable songwriter and producer.
Morcheeba – Big Calm
Portishead – Dummy
Tricky – Maxinquaye
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.