Christ, this is hard. Hard because this is- mostly- soul music. Hard because this is good. Hard because it hints at, winks at something majestic. Hard because just a bit too much is good, not quite enough is great.
Collaborator, singer, thinker/feeler, lover and muse, MTB is one of those people who- had they never been born- would’ve left us with a world that much smaller, that much greyer than the one we have now. She’s been- in her relatively unprolific recorded career- a distinctive, genre-bridging, light-and-shade, fiercely intelligent and idiosyncratically humane artist, gently moving and occasionally- on Tricky’s dark and dangerous Maxinquaye and her own fragmented Quixotic in particular- shattering. Small, fierce and lulling, sure and wondering, there’s often (though not always) been a satisfyingly discomforting threat and a nighttime harshness to her stuff that’s belied the apparent slow, warm, considered surface. Often (though not always), that blend of mind and blood, wry sophistication and sensual pleading in her voice and her words is here, but this time there’s a poppier thread snaking through, a thread that pushes her over, on occasion, into Amy/Duffy territory: for good and bad.
This time round, five years after Quixotic, Martina and Danger Mouse have built something from the bottom up- a true collaboration that snakes around from the shy, disappointingly just-OK start to the strong, bleak shadows that you just want to go on and on hiding in.
A real mixed bag. The opener, Phoenix, beats and throbs, grows- and eventually shrinks: for a while languid, infecting and sneaky, Martina’s underplayed voice (delightfully but all-too-briefly echo-enhanced in the middle) and old Brian’s tripping, hopping production seem, finally and anti-climactically, to cancel each other out. Cockney-whirl (and recent single) Carnies is folky, lyrically ambivalent, ever-so-slightly straight and ever-so-straightly slight, though Martina’s beginning to push to the front of the stage, a spot she occupies stridently, beautifully in the stunning, undeniable, Something To Say, all faux-girly and smile-as-you-kill. Scenes and speeds shift again for Shangri La– lush and grand, then quick and pushy, then Seventh Tree-slow and ethereal, producer and singer and words and music push and pull, nod and jump, stop and start. The has-to-be-a-single Baby Blue is Ronsonesque, hooky, seductive and slightly irritating, eschewing the Dustyisms and black US croak of those other, younger Brits but embracing some of their pop-knowingness. Old-school soul Valentine is how it should be: big and bold and ballady and churchy, its Deep Southness subtly wound round a London sensibility.
Things get darker again: April Grove‘s oddly Morrisseyesque, death-imbued gentleness shifts from mock-rock into swirling keyboard magic and myth; the slight, evil-childlike Snowman is strange, cold-wind-through-trees and unbalancing. Forthcoming single Poison swings and demands you dance with it, even as it suffocates you; the wonderful, entrancing, deep-dark Razor Tongue sees Martina lose herself in a world of suffering and redemption. And then things turn left. The sixties silliness of nearly-instrumental Da Da Da Da quickly becomes something a little weirder and fuller, a stoned Audrey Hepburn in an episode of The Prisoner. Final track, Yesterday, staggers around all over the place, getting all grimey and proggy, Danger Mouse and Martina drunkenly chasing each other through corridors of sound and strings and half-melody, the thing’s oddness and lack of compromise brave and, ultimately, hopeful.
Bloody good, then. There’s some fabulous stuff here: power and shadow and rhythm. But it’s not uniformly mind-bending: her pop at times feels too sweet, too light and too mid-Atlantic. When she’s dark, though, when Martina heads- with dub and jazz and trip-hop- into the shadows and the graveyards and the tabloid murders and the weird children and the grotesques of Britain, then she’s wonderful.
Really, really looking forward to the next one.
Release date: 12/05/08
Artist website: www.martinatopleybird.com