Tricky is already carrying a heavy burden: The British press has labeled him the king of trip-hop, a mixture of hip-hop, acid jazz and other compatible ingredients that's reportedly the latest subgenre to turn England on its collective teacups. Whether any of that is true, I can't say; after all, the London fashion police are not exactly known for either their reserve or their accuracy. But what's abundantly clear is that Maxinquaye is one hell of a lot better than anything managed thus far by Massive Attack, the occasionally intriguing act from which Tricky sprang, or practically any other dance-related disc that's appeared this year. The sounds at play here are complex and moody, and while most numbers are built upon prominent percussive rhythms, they avoid predictability with an aplomb that borders on the miraculous. "Ponderosa," for example, uses a beat that's as twisted as anything this side of Tom Waits, then layers atop it disembodied voices, discordant keyboard pounding and a vocal by singer/ secret weapon Martina that's simultaneously eerie and magnetic. Other cuts are equally surprising and equally individual: For every "Black Steel," which riffs and rocks like a smoky P.J. Harvey outtake, there's a bass-dominated film-noir lope like "Hell Is Around the Corner," a lyrical assault along the lines of "Abbaon Fat Tracks" (highlighted by Tricky's announcement, "I'll fuck you up the ass/Just for a laugh") and a sonic seducer of the sort epitomized by "Aftermath." On some levels, the platter is a downer--it's dark, insular and occasionally cryptic, largely because Tricky favors minor keys and subtle effects over obvious hooks and by-the-numbers structure. But what exhilarates is the inventiveness that's at the heart of the musical idiosyncrasy on display here. Even if it's true that there's nothing new under the sun, Maxinquaye has the power to fool you into believing the contrary.--Michael Roberts
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The Orphan's Lament
On Lament, Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Anatoli Kuular, Sayan Bapa and Alexander Bapa, the four artists who comprise Huun-Huur-Tu, provide a tasty serving of culturally rich and accessible music that transports the listener to Tuva, a region located between Mongolia and Siberia. The performers take a maximist approach to primitive music: Rather than presenting one instrument, one voice or one style at a time, they launch a barrage of natural textures that are as thick as the sound made by a modern bluegrass band yet as primal and acoustic as a solitary drum. One of the musicians achieves something like this effect all by himself: He's able to sing two separate notes--a growling bass drone and a soft, whistling overtone that actually stays in key--at exactly the same time. If you want a scientific description of how this is accomplished, you won't find it here, but the effect is startling. As for the songs, most are newly written, but they ring with a combination of contemporaneity and timelessness. This may be due in part to the tools used to create Lament, which include devices familiar to Westerners (acoustic guitar, Jew's harp), items native to Tuva and instruments invented by the members of Huun-Huur-Tu; for example, the players use a rattle made from a bull scrotum and sheep kneebones in an effort to mimic the sounds of their natural environment in a musical way. Obviously, this band has not allowed respect for tradition to interfere with creativity.--Steve Gray
When Altered Beast, Sweet's followup to his commercial breakthrough, Girlfriend, went into the toilet faster than a bag of cocaine during a drug raid, you had to figure that this singer-songwriter would respond with something fresh--perhaps a variation on the melodic pop and squalling guitars that have defined his work, rather than another batch of the same old stuff. Instead, Sweet went back into the studio with the usual suspects (including ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd and string strangler Robert Quine) and a fistful of tunes that plowed the very Beatle-esque field he's been working since the time this CD's cover photo was taken. That's how you spell doom in most cases, and perhaps in this one, too: Thus far, the sales figures for 100% Fun have been, to put it mildly, modest. Which is too bad--because Sweet has come up with an album that's as consistently tuneful and attractive as the material from which he draws his inspiration. There are twelve songs here, and not one stiff: "Sick of Myself," "Giving It Back," "Super Baby" and the rest are compulsively hummable and infused with the kind of willful naivete that sucks you in rather than causing you to beg your pharmacist for insulin. As Beast demonstrated, Sweet can't come up with pop this pure every time--but when he does, it goes down so smooth that any gripes about nostalgia-mongering and the beating of dead horses vanish in record time. Make mine a double.--Roberts