Name That Style
The four men in the band Live are not what you'd call innovators: If they've ever had an original thought, they apparently have not seen fit to share it with the general public. But even if they're not stellar when it comes to making fresh music, they at least have shown the ability to recognize it when they hear it. For example, they tabbed the exceptional P.J. Harvey to open for many of their 1995 appearances, and they placed Morcheeba, an intriguing new British act, on the bill for a series of small-hall dates intended as harbingers for a full-fledged Live tour this summer.
But while Live's largesse deserves applause, it should be noted that the acts on the receiving end of it are presented with a considerable challenge. When Harvey joined Live at Red Rocks, she put on an artistically superior show that nevertheless went straight over the heads of a majority of the crowd ("Live and Let Live," August 30, 1995). Morcheeba lead singer Skye Edwards feared much the same thing might happen to her. In a conversation on March 5, only hours before a gig at Denver's Paramount Theatre that would mark Morcheeba's first Live pairing, she admitted, "I'm a little worried. It's flattering that they chose us; I heard they had a list of fifty bands that they could have taken out with them, and they picked us. But we're very different from them. I'm not sure how the audience is going to take it."
According to sources who were at the show, Edwards need not have been anxious. Although the Live boosters in attendance didn't tear the joint apart to demonstrate their enthusiasm for Morcheeba, they were attentive, respectful and appreciative--reactions that an unknown opener encounters far too seldom.
This response becomes more surprising, and more satisfying, when you take into account Morcheeba's subtlety. To put it mildly, Who Can You Trust?, the Discovery Records debut by Edwards and her associates, brothers Paul and Ross Godfrey, doesn't bust listeners in the chops. As Paul notes, "It's subconscious music, really. It's not particularly direct. It's very kind of wormlike."
Indeed, Trust is a discreet effort that can disappear into the background if you're not paying close attention. But give the disc a little time and you'll encounter an alluring mood piece that gradually draws you into its deceptively sturdy web. At first, only a couple of songs rise to the surface--"Trigger Hippie," the trio's seductive single, and "Tape Loop" are the most likely candidates. Hang around for a while, though, and by the end of the CD you're apt to feel just the sort of pleasant buzz the name Morcheeba suggests. Hell, the flesh under your eyes might be kind of puffy, too.
Not that weed is necessarily a prerequisite for enjoying Morcheeba's slippery pleasures. "Paul does like to smoke," Edwards concedes. "He says it helps him focus on the music late at night. But I can't really do that. I have a baby--Jaeger, he's fourteen months old--so I have to be a little more together."
The Godfrey boys started making music together at a young age, with Ross contributing sounds inspired by what Edwards describes as "blues and psychedelic-rock-type stuff" and Paul drawing from vintage folk rock and old school hip-hop. "In my opinion, music was pretty bad from around 1975 until fairly recently, with the exception of people like Grandmaster Flash," Paul says. "Around that time, the great artists of the late Sixties and early Seventies just lost it, and there was an oversaturation of disco. After that there was punk, which was good at the time because it shook things up, but I don't think it left a particularly good imprint on music. And then there was the New Romantic stuff in Britain, which was just horrible. When I was confronted with that, I would retreat to my albums by Nick Drake and Crosby, Stills and Nash and say, 'Now, these are proper influences.'"
Fortunately, Paul and Ross didn't devote their creative energies to, say, a CS&N cover band called Our House. Instead, they assembled and recorded instrumental tracks that melded the lushness and sweep of British art pop with hip-hop techniques such as scratching and looping. Four years later, in 1995, they met Edwards. They soon learned that her musical tastes differed substantially from theirs: When she's asked if she is as fond of Soft Machine as Paul is, she first assumes her questioner is quizzing her about Soft Cell, then admits that she has never heard Soft Machine in her life. But her love of Joni Mitchell's music provided her and the Godfreys a common ground. Before long, Paul and Ross decided that Edwards's voice would match perfectly with their rich soundscapes.
Although "Trigger Hippie," the irresistible offering that subsequently introduced the act to the British music community, proved that the siblings had made the right choice, it also led to Morcheeba being categorized as a trip-hop group. This conclusion makes a certain amount of sense: Edwards's detached delivery has something in common with the work of Tricky and Massive Attack. But Edwards feels the descriptor is simplistic. "It's a shame," she contends. "To me, it's just a lazy title, because the music goes deeper than that. If you were to strip away all the beats and all the electronic stuff, you would just have some really good songs."
"Songwriting is where we focus our energy--and it's also the most rewarding thing in music for us," agrees Paul, who writes all of Morcheeba's lyrics in addition to manning the turntables. "So it's a pity to be labeled like that. Basically, we don't have anything in common with artists under the trip-hop umbrella other than a love of hip-hop grooves. But that's the way it is in Britain. They just listen to the intro of one song and sort of sum up what sort of style it is from there. And thus you are pigeonholed for the rest of your career."
If this is in fact the case, the pigeonholing of Morcheeba could not have come at a more opportune juncture. "It is a good time for us," Paul concedes, laughing. "Especially since so many of the people I've spoken to over here are so disillusioned with the way the post-Nirvana rock scene has gone. I mean, there are very, very few songwriting geniuses, and Kurt Cobain was one. But you can't just copy his style or his chords or his sound and expect to have the same kind of impact on people. People who don't think that deeply--maybe kids--will hear the sound, and that will be enough for them. But if you keep doing that over and over again, it leads to a kind of disappointment and cynicism. And it's certainly not unique to the rock field. At the moment, the music industry has decided, 'We're bored with rock music,' and all they want is electronica. So they're buying all this electronic music en masse--and 90 percent of it will be crap, just like 90 percent of the rock music they were buying was crap. I don't know who the hell runs these companies--probably sixty- or seventy-year-old guys who don't know what the fuck they're doing. Perhaps that's why so many people have been attracted to us--because we're more interested in making our own music than in trying to sound like everyone else."
Whatever the reason, the Morcheeba bandwagon has been getting mighty crowded lately: Even David Byrne has climbed aboard. When the former Talking Heads leader began putting together his upcoming solo album, which is due within the next several months, he asked the Godfreys to produce it for him. As you might expect, Paul has only good things to say about the project. "He has an enormous wealth of experience that we could listen to and appreciate that we haven't had because we're at the very beginning," he allows.
As for the suggestion that Byrne is simply using the Morcheeba boys to make him seem more up-to-date than he actually is, a la U2 and David Bowie on their most recent releases, he insists, "David's album is very much a David Byrne album. All we did was complement the songs that he wrote. Besides, we're very versatile. We do everything from acoustic folk to New Orleans voodoo to hip-hop to punk. So I'm not in any way threatened by the sort of hijacking of our style."
To ensure that Morcheeba doesn't wind up going down with the trend to which it is presently linked, Edwards and the Godfreys have paid special attention to finding an onstage equivalent for their extremely produced music. "It was difficult at first, because the album was recorded in a studio and used so many studio ideas," Edwards says. "Then afterward, we had to find all these people to actually play the music for us.
"It took us about a year to get it sounding right. At first you want it to sound like it is on the album, but that doesn't work. At home, you might be listening on headphones in your bedroom just chilling out, but when you go to a concert with hundreds of people there, you can't be that laid-back--you can't get a load of beds and sofas and turn the whole place into a chill-out area. You have to be a bit more energetic. So we've pushed the tempos up a bit so that we--I don't know--rock out in a mellow way."
By facing down a theater filled with Live fans and surviving to tell the tale, the Morcheeba three have obviously achieved at least a portion of their goal. But that doesn't mean Paul has any interest in embracing the cliches of most typical live (and Live) performances. "A lot of people are now saying that we're better in concert than we are on record," he says. "Things are flip-flopping. But we're never going to be a regular rock band. We'll get reviews where a critic will be kind of liking what we do, but then he'll stick a knife in at the end and say 'They don't rock.' And we'll be like, 'Of course we don't rock. We never intended to.'"
Fiona Apple, with Morcheeba. 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 24, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, $15, 830-
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