ineteen Ninety Nine
Tricky’s work with mainstream hip-hop hadn’t really yielded anything that had worked yet, but his remix of Method Man’s “Judgement Day”, the lead single from Tical 2000 showed that in collaboration his work could be adapted to this genre. Credited to Tricky alone, it featured touring guitarist, Mark Thwaite (The Mission/New Disease) playing live on the mix. It’s this element that makes it work; the rickety bassline, the loose rhythm guitar and the Indian melody line hacked from some longer guitar noodling all serve to support Meth with an up-tempo rhythm. It’s not going to incite (or excite) your average Murder Inc fan into checking out Tricky though. This was the last of the Tricky remixes/productions which were actually of any worth, with a few more collaborative exceptions. Revolving predominantly around brief repetitive loops, there is precious little going on in his mix work from 99 onwards (check Aco’s “Natsu No Hi” for proof if you have four minutes to kill).
Tricky had been working on and heavily promoting the debut LP of his Stonepony project, in which he and Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs would be sharing vocals and production without any input from any other vocalists (i.e. Martina). Much to the surprise of those awaiting the LP, including Muggs, he dumped the project at the eleventh hour, instead releasing the 35 minute Juxtapose featuring 5 ex-Stonepony songs, 1 solo effort and 4 collaborations with Dame Grease, crediting the LP to Tricky with DJ Muggs and Grease. No explanations were given.
Lead single “For Real” was a decent enough song, taking swipes at gangsta rap (even though it’s produced by DMX and Yukmouth producer, Grease) and for some unknown reason reminds me, musically, of something Seal would release (that’s not meant as an insult). It’s unexpectedly mature and melodic, incorporating live instrumentation like Sitars and breathy non-Martina female vocals. Normally I can take or leave Grease’s sub Swizz beats impressions but this is a really interesting sound from him. But it was the Muggs material I had been looking forward to hearing, so as an introduction this initially boded well for the rest of the LP. The b-sides weren’t so hot though. “Bombing Bastards” starts off like some dark cellar hip-hop and then rolls along with Tricky freestyling lines from his old material. Christ, my patience at this time was wearing thin; it became infuriating as he seemed to be putting less work into the words/music and yet still acted annoyed when his label began to withdraw support as Island began to undergo takeover restructures. The old classic “Pop Muzik” uses the slightly altered backing of LP track “Scrappy Love” and adds some quirky noises in an attempt to disguise the source material.
The Grease Tracks
“Bom Bom Diggy” has a crap title, a crap chorus and weedy music. Despite this, this track still stands out for one reason; Maddog. Previously known as Bionic of UK Hip-hop/jungle pioneers, the London Posse, he’d spent the last few years spitting with Junglist crews before Tricky ran into him. Maddog goes 100mph over the beat, disregarding it totally and demanding you hit the rewind to try and catch all that he says. Tricky is left to wallow in his own whispering. This shows how far Tricky really is from being regarded as a real MC; in fact this is the first time he’s been put next to a proper UK MC, and he comes off really badly.
“I Like the Girls” is, as you might expect, a sex rap. Tricky sticks to the materialistic chorus while Maddog immerses himself in clits, bitches, cream and lesbians; y’know, the typical teen fantasy bullshit. Not particularly good at all.
The backing for “Hot Like a Sauna” could’ve been a DMX track, it bounces along on pounding squelches and keyboard beats but still can’t keep up with Maddog. Tricky comes out with some amusing lines and a little gangsta chic in his verse, but is soon forgotten as Maddog (think a deeper voiced Dizzee) takes the rest of the verses at incredible pace. Invigorating, hardcore stuff. A “metal mix” version of this track turns up later on the LP; it’s exactly the same except the squelches are replaced by keyboard-played guitars. Pretty pointless.
The other Muggs tracks
“Contradictive”. Songs like this are the reason why it’s been so difficult for me to ditch the Tricky habit; this is genius. An Indian melody played on Spanish melody, light bongo beats with live bass add a smoky air to the dissipating, twisting layering chorus vocals.
“Call Me” features rubbish singer D’NA droning on about ’I wait for you, I hate for you’ over prominent snares. Most interesting are the punches of messy guitar which leak onto the track. Seems there was another lyrical dry run as he borrows again from Nenehs Cherry’s “Had you in Me”. Her impression of passionate singing at the end is pitifully bad; I’m assuming she was incredibly attractive, made great cups of tea or her dad owned the studio.
The lone acoustic guitar intro of “Wash My Soul” has a lonely spiritual air which is destroyed by what appear to be Lil Kim lyrics - ‘Lick it, wet it, you like it, you let it, Lick it, wet it, touch it, take your turn’.
“Scrappy Love” is probably the crappest song ever to be appear on a greatest hits collection (as this did on 2002), clinging onto life through the piano line from “Games without Frontiers”. Tricky, mumbling some reflective crap about lost love, adds the word ‘love’ at the end of almost every line. Unbearable.
The Tricky Track
“She Said” rolls along strongly enough as bongo playing skirts the main rhythm. Yet another track which uses the LPs signature sound; the quick static blasts of displaced guitar. A surprising amount of repetition of the phrase ‘She Said’ amongst a lot of very shit lyrics.
The celluloid skid mark that was the movie Forces of Nature featured an exclusive Tricky song on the OST and therefore I was compelled to buy it. He may have not been using Martina and her vocals anymore but he found someone to try and fill her boots on “Slowly”. Carmen Ejogo (she is the love interest in flop Eddie Murphy vehicle Metro) does Martina by numbers and gets away with it on the sheer strength of the breezy, relaxed warm piano production. This is a hidden gem amongst the Tricky treasure trove of rarities.
The Mission Accomplished EP was the first completely dire release of Tricky’s career, serving as both his debut release new label Anti (the non punk wing of Epitaph and home to, guess who, Tom Waits) and was to meant to serve as both a ‘hello’ to Anti and a ‘fuck you’ to Island. The title track was based on a fuzzed-up rough riff of the Mission Impossible theme, featuring Chesney Hawkes (yes, that Chesney Hawkes) on vocals with Tricky. It’s really a drudge to listen to with its thinly recorded drums, really annoying pinging guitar lick and an air of people who believe they are producing something really heavy when it really sounds like a bad Cher rocker.
Both “Crazy Claws” and “Tricky Vs Lynx (live)” (it’s not live, there’s no lynx and Tricky isn’t on it) suffer from decent vocalists either being lyrically tiresome, like Marlon and Maddog, or else descending into some mumbled, half-whispered, repetition-based freestyle rap like Tricky does here, especially on “Crazy Claws”. The music is fairly innocuous mashing live rhythm instruments with programmed beats and shifting electronic drones. The final track is the official release of 1998’s Polygram diss "Divine Comedy", Tricky giving his old paymasters the finger once again from the safety of another label.
"I did Blowback for the cash" **. Tricky made official in May 2003 what most listeners had already guessed in June 2001, when he released his first album for Anti. Not that this in itself is a reason to dismiss it, but when you add that powdered shit flakes admission to an already unappetising dish, the damage is irrevocably done. Seemingly slapped together from tracks from both new studio sessions and unreleased recordings that went as far back as two years, it unfortunately more than delivered on the lack of promise that the Mission Impossible EP offered. With a list of contributors that read like a who's who of overrated US alt rockers backed by a bunch of Tricky’s new pretend best friends, Blowback stinks of desperation. Acts like Live and Alanis Morrisette were still big names with devoted fans but both had run aground creatively, pumping out the same old material to increasing indifference. Citing management issues Alanis had one of her pityingly rank collaborations, “Question”, pulled from the finished LP, appearing only on promos. Tricky repaid Live's Ed Kowalczyk by dropping a few rough voiced and uninspiring lines in the middle of their ‘gotta love one another’ anthem “Simple Creed” from their V LP.
Whilst plugging this release he simultaneously slammed his previous LPs as demos and claimed that he had finally found his feet. It’s quite common for artists to push their current vision (he himself identified this era’s vision as cash focused) at the expense of everything else they’ve done, but he was fooling no one; Tricky was finally playing the same game as the rest of the pack. Calling this his ‘radio album’ shows that he was totally out of step with what was actually going on.
In his defence, I’ll give him a smidgeon of credit for keeping his options open on Blowback with a mild selection of styles being covered, albeit very poorly, instead of going straight for MOR. It’s not the diversity of the material that leaves the LP feeling so casual; it’s the quality of theses toe-in-the-water genre impersonations. Most of the work here seems to have borrowed and diluted much of it’s style and sound from some of Nine Inch Nail's less abrasive material; electronics meshing with live instrumentation. But where Reznor and his mates create highs and lows through punchy pop hooks, near atonal slabs of static and an air of universal ‘she hurt me and now I’m so very angry’ teenage rage, this lacks any real attempt at emotional or sonic weight.
Again and again the phrase that leaps unbidden to mind to describe his post Juxtapose work is ‘dull as a bastard’. Considering the effects of the lively cross pollination of hip-hop and rock on our youth jumping around in bedrooms and clubs, it’s dismaying that the material here that attempts it is so lacklustre. When "Bury the Evidence" was first unveiled at the live shows on the Angels with Dirty Faces tour it was raw like an open wound, alternating between stripped moodiness and steroid madness. Here it slouches, laughably drained of fury with a spotless guitar sound courtesy of producer Rob Cavallo (of Green Day, Morrisette and Goo Goo Dolls fame) who co-produces this and two other tracks.
I don’t think it’s possible to add a more damning indictment of the quality of the song writing on Blowback than to say the finest moment is a version of the “Wonder Woman“ theme, done in collaboration with Flea and John Frusciante of Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Out of the 12 originals and 3 covers it’s the only one to sound really alive with its soaring Frusciante chorus. Anthony Kiedis (lead singer) was also brought in on "Girls" which clomps along like a lead weighted diver, with Tricky shouting like a loon in an attempt to be a rock vocalist. A wasted opportunity when you imagine the flavours that players like Frusciante and Flea could invest in a track, even working within the limited colours of verse chorus solo verse chorus. Add to this equation Tricky’s unpredictability of influence and it could've created much more magic, insane, funky or beautiful music. At the time though he was full of praise at their work, but later they ended up getting dissed by him, saying “they're just like little girls, man."##. You can’t even tell that it’s Cyndi Lauper singing on "Five days" because her vocals are placed so low in the mix. What a waste of a great voice!
There are too few flashes of brilliance to regard this even as an LP which fails only in it’s presentation or production; the dramatic piano line in the otherwise plodding opener "Excess". The talented Ambersunshower gets a sweet lullaby duet with Tricky on the retitled "Your name", a cover of a Judy Garland’s standard “Under The Bamboo Tree”, but she is then flattened by the befuddled demo feel and clichéd lyrics of “Over Me”. Her stilted vocals on the single "You Don't Wanna" revolve around an all too obvious Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams”) sample. The fantastic "A song for Yukiko" sounds like the missing third part of the two bonus songs fromAngels with Dirty Faces, as it was premiered in September 99 on the short-lived Tricky internet radio show. This ghostly, dislocated mood piece would’ve been ideal on the end of that LP, instead it’s tacked onto the end of Blowback, totally out of place. Sadly, this lyricist reuses lines from “Slowly” here, always leaving again that horrible lazy taste when listening to these two songs.
Hawkman is not a talented ragga MC or singer and we can probably surmise that Tricky also came to this conclusion considering that since this LP they haven’t worked together again. The mind boggles over the reasons why the cover of Nirvana’s "Something in the way" ended up the way it did. It's hysterically fucking crap, Hawkman comes off like Eddie Vedder after extensive dental surgery or having singing over a backing that sounds like a cross between a crap version of The Cure circa The Top and one of those cheap keyboard demos songs designed to show off their extensive range of cymbal sounds.
The European bonus disc featured some new songs, two of which were Tricky executive productions, which probably means he didn’t do much in the studio except pay the bill. Both of these were average, “My Head” which featured future collaborator Constanza Francavilla and her irritating voice and “Unofficial”, an average piece of hip-hop with MC Phatt Black. “Suffocating (demo)”, like “Song for Yukiko”, sounds more in tune with the music of his recent past coating live and digital beats with frayed noise guitar.
His workrate over the last two years had ground to a virtual trickle and this may well have been his attempt to get back onto the mainstream’s radar (and into their good books) for doing more than playing his part in assaulting people physically and verbally, but his interviews showed that he was still acting the confused poet thug. Except it was no longer the endearing actions of a unstable genius; it was the ravings of a bitter man cut loose from his art. He seemed to be using his harsh Bristol roots as an excuse for a mindset that demanded respect and sees violence as a potential answer to that lack of respect.
** Burn it Blue May 03
## Burn it Blue June 03
The contrast between the wretched Blowback and Island’s A Ruff Guide best of collection couldn’t have been sharper. Serving as an introduction to his early work it focused mainly on the singles with a few randomly inserted LP tracks. While it would be unfair to compare these two releases, it’s obvious that there was a steep decline in quality control as soon as Tricky was dropped from Island.
A few months later Tricky released the second single from Blowback, the derivative “You Don’t Wanna” throwing up the question of how someone so original in his outlook and focus got around to releasing a single which was little more than a sample and a wasted use of a great vocalist like Ambersunshower. It rightly bombed, taking with it the overzealous and annoying gangsterisms of “Intro Outro” which boasts the last sighting of Hawkman. The third track, “What’s it Gonna be”, is performed by Ko-La, a poppy sounding girl group with a criminally unnecessary name produced by members of his touring band and executive produced by Tricky. This could be any of a million middling girl singers and it’s unlikely anyone would need repeated listens to appreciate everything that this track had to offer. Considering he appeared on Paul Oakenfold’s debut LP Bunkka, duetting with Nelly Furtado on the “The Harder They Come” single, his profile still seemed to slide further into the dark. A rushed split EP with Rico (a mini UK NiN), entitled Mixed-Up Faces, also sank without trace despite much hype, due to it’s lack of substance.
There was some initial confusion as to whether Vulnerable was a return to form of sorts. My first impression was of a technically clearer and less emotionally burdened work; two more listens minus the rose-cushioned headphones proved that this was shaping up to make Blowback look like Rubber Soul in comparison. The press were fed, and in turn regurgitated, the party line that this was his most mature and personal LP to date; a statement revealing much desperation, and in reality saying that here is another collection of songs not good enough to call a comeback, and a desperate attempt to make you give a shit about hearing it.
Vulnerable makes me feel like I’m lying in the damp spot of someone else’s premature shortcomings while they snore away contentedly, oblivious to my dissatisfaction and discomfort. The only relationship I expect to have with an artist is that I’m happy to support them and their life of leisure/pursuit of art as long as I’m interested, involved or fee like jigging about. There is a palpable sense of disappointment in coming to terms with the fact that I seem to be reaching a point where his releases are leaving me unmoved in every sense. Not that he’d give two shakes of an old man’s cock either way.
As a whole, it’s certainly sonically lighter than a lot of previous work, the live sounding electric and acoustic guitars making it slightly more accessible to those not used to hearing the squonks, drones and buzzing fridge effects of usual Tricky productions. Someone would be hard pressed to tell instrumental versions of many of these tracks from any old Max Martin filler track (Backstreet b-sides, early Britney album tracks) as they’re almost flimsily throwaway creations; dull, flat and lifeless. I only wish I knew enough synonyms for the word ‘average’ to be able to adequately cover Vulnerable track by track.
The production is cleaner and the beats are actual drum sounds as opposed to found-sounds, but this sounds like music bleached of its individuality and character. It’s not that if it isn’t dark, moody or foreboding, I won’t like it; I’m all for musical evolution, just not one that strips the magic. It seems Tricky’s come round in a kind of ruinous full circle; in the past it was his production methods and the interplay between the male and female vocals that distinguished him from the everyday trip-hop and pop. Now without the glitches, the irregular, different rhythms and the experimentation it could very easily be any average pop act with some crusty-mouthed geezer doing a Wyclef-type irritating doubling up the vocals of the girl down the street’s vocals on every track.
To return to the Max Martin on a bad day analogy, at least his weak melodies normally have an artist’s image and their pleasant vocal topping to lift it beyond the sum of its parts. Unfortunately Tricky doesn’t have (m)any screaming fans blinded by hormones to fill in the blanks with emotional import. The lead single “Antimatter” being a prime example of this cheap sounding production style stretched over 3 minutes creating something a layered but monotonous track. The accompanying remixes by his touring band and mates were uniformly poor; There are moments of pure horror all over the LP with the cluttered mess of tracks “Wait for God” and “Ice Pick” or the bad metal-lite rhythm guitars on “How High”, “Moody” or the disengaging insipidity of “What is Wrong” and “Stay”.
The situation is not helped by using a very average milk-and-water vocalist like Constanza Francavilla who seems to be under the impression that by sounding girly and breathless the listener will ignore her habit of never reaching notes. Even covering an obvious classic like XTC’s “Dear god” turns into a dud move, as the excellent lyrics are faded out into incomprehensibility by the clash of Constanza’s Italian accent with Tricky’s cracked voice. The “Lovecats” cover is just so pointlessly sapless, unsexy and lacking in any of the elements of cuteness or poptasticism of the original that I seriously wonder what the intention of this cover was. Only the winsome “Hollow”, shining out like a peanut in a turd from the blankfaced clutter of Vulnerable, is worthy of any sort of praise as it’s genuinely subtle flutters of electronics sit alongside the operatic vocal choir. Standing out like sore thumbs are two rawer, darker, more discordant tracks (tagged onto a bonus DVD disc with shitty gangsta flecked videos because of their incompatibility with Vulnerable’s production) done in collaboration with his latest Jamaican ragga mate, Radagon. “Receive Us” and “Snap Them” are a nasty sounding pair, enveloped in threat. “Snap Them” seems to be taking a pop at the latest crop of big names (Nelly, Aguilera, Eminem) and how it’s all about MTV and money; a valid point, but if you have to strain to make out what on earth they are about, what’s the point? So while Vulnerable is mostly fairly subdued and apparently very personal to him, Tricky can’t help but flex those ugly Bristol ghetto muscles. I am guessing that with Radagon being a hell of a lot more difficult to understand, this will probably make him a bit more 4 real than the reasonably coherent Hawkman. Tricky’s claims that a collaborative LP Backactiv was completed around this time and is awaiting release, but this should be taken with a pinch of salt when considering the fate of the LPs recorded with Maddog and Hawkman. With hip-hop now being such a huge part of youth culture and the once impenetrable Ebonics becoming part of everyday speech, the rougher end of ragga now remains urban music’s last uncharted territory, unfathomable even to some of those enjoying like Sean Paul. Did the commercial envelopment of hip-hop’s commercial push intransigent Tricky again to the margins
The tuneless “Search, Search, Survive” ends the LP on a depressing note as he uses it to take a further swing at (totally innocent of anything at all) the Face writers as the track is ” a song for the guy from the Face magazine. He’s the guy who put me through all this…I was the press baby in England, then all of a sudden, even if I put a piece of gold down on a CD, they would still say it’s shit. It’s me basically saying ‘fuck him’.” +
This insanely juvenile and bitter grudge seems to be an obsession of his, living on in Tricky’s mind, work and interviews. Reading these interviews it’s difficult to see exactly what his problem with these interviews actually was. This type of petty fallout has littered his career to his massive detriment. His inability to control every situation involved in working with other musicians and his unwillingness to accept different perceptions.
Martina finally released her debut LP, Quixotic, in mid 03, working with her own production team, Amp 9, and David Holmes as well as Tricky who helped out on five of the thirteen tracks (though his input was limited to unnoticeable additional production duties on three of these). Both “Ragga” and “Ilya” are rhythmically similar to early Tricky/Martina work but the old magic just isn’t there anymore. She works a lot better within tighter, poppier song structures with the rockier sound, and these two are a little too loose; the vocals on “Ilya” sound a little too similar to the slurring patterns of the Maxinquaye era. Compared to the rest of the LP these are average tracks, and it’s the Holmes productions that steal the show, just like the material they worked on for his solo LPs. So with Martina proving she is capable of shining by herself, where can Tricky really go from here?
Its undeniable his sales have taken an almighty battering and critically he’s regarded as having run off the rails into a bland middle ground between pop, rnb, hip-hop and plain weird material. Every now and then he seems to manage to force out something that makes me wonder where he pulled that from, but it now looks like a momentous struggle. The rest of the material sounds pale in comparison, could he really have burnt himself out? Is it possible to actually do that? His sitting pretty position of the man between genres has left him high and dry without a dedicated fan base to fall back on. For me, it’s no longer worth searching out rare tracks and collaborations, because the majority of his music is so unrewarding. The bitterness and hostility he exudes towards the past and the future is going to keep him from getting back to basics and building something new and interesting; didn’t you know he influenced all this music around you now? He’s sitting in a dead end, too stubborn to look for a reverse.
+May 03 studentuk.com
--- Part Two ---
Thanks to Kitty at Moon Palace for access to her interview archives.
By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2004-03-15