Thursday, September 4, 2008

Tricky's Knowle West Boy (review: original version)

Tricky, Knowle West Boy
Produced by Tricky and Bernard Butler
Additional production by David “Switch” Taylor
Domino Recording Co., 2008

The opening song, “Puppy Toy,” on the new album Knowle West Boy by Adrian Thaws, known to all the music-listening world as Tricky, has a blues flavor, which is a bit of a surprise as the artist is one whose work many of us identify with the contemporary moment, even with a kind of urban postmodernism: if modernism is concerned with the construction of self and self-consciousness, postmodernism is a fracturing of identity and sound. However, if anyone can conjure the past without being lost in it, that person is Adrian Thaws, Tricky, a category-destroyer of a musician whose Knowle West Boy, recorded in London and Los Angeles, is a thematic return to his British roots in a Bristol housing complex (called council estates there, the projects here). The album is “about remembering where I come from,” Adrian Thaws was quoted as saying by Roy Wilkinson in the magazine Mojo (February 2008). Tricky described those times as among his best, noting especially the confidence he felt when he was a boy growing up surrounded by mixed-race family and friends. It is an unexpected sentimentality from someone whose work with the 1995 album Maxinquaye featuring Martina Topley-Bird, along with the music of the bands Massive Attack and Portishhead, introduced a new sound in the 1990s, at once dreamy, sensual, smart, street, and textured, a sound that pushed Tricky to the front rank of musicians, where he formed bonds with the likes of Bjork, Neneh Cherry, Elvis Costello, Yoko Ono, and Bush. (Tricky has worked also as an actor, featured in The Fifth Element; and as a director of the film Brown Punk.) The neighborhood the now famous high school dropout Tricky recalls, Knowle West in Bristol, is thought of as a mostly white ghetto by many. (Tricky himself considers the old homeplace too inappropriate for a concert, though he visits family there, thinking there is no good music venue, and remembering that another performer got the wheels stolen from his car.) Even the song “Puppy Toy,” which opens the album, although conversational, with male and female voices—the girl is Alex Mills—in the midst of leisure, drinking, conveys a leisure marked by conflict (How many arguments take place in bars? Too many).

Adrian Thaws, whose father left his life before he was born and whose mother committed suicide when he was four, is, despite whatever cruelty he has found in the world, a very social being. The musical influences of Tricky, who has been described as funny and moody, earthy and remote, were musicans such as the Specials, Prince, Kate Bush, Tom Waits, and Rakim; and the young Adrian Thaws, the Tricky Kid, worked with the collective known as the Wild Bunch, from which both he and Massive Attack emerged. Tricky has collaborated with many but remains an original. “The luckiest thing I’ve got still is my own sound. There’s no album like this out there now,” Tricky boasted to the British music magazine New Musical Express (“Comebacks and Blowbacks,” NME, July 2008). On the album Knowle West Boy, Tricky has a large supporting cast of sensuous singers and seductive speakers. (Many of his collaborators are on the label, Brown Punk, Tricky has begun with Island recording label founder Chris Blackwell, and a British cultural worker Emily Taylor.) A West Indian male patois (spoken by Rodigan) introduces the song “Bacative,” followed by a light female voice, juxtaposing experiences and tones, as does the music, including a swirling orchestral sound and a loud but light beat. “Bacative” refers to someone whose support you can trust—someone who has your back. With Knowle West Boy, Tricky, whose albums included the angrily confessional Angels with Dirty Faces (1998) and the more obviously sensitive Vulnerable (2003), has given us music for the busy, crazy, diverse world we live in now, a world in which there is more rage and more sensitivity than anyone can account for.

On the well-received Knowle West Boy, the soft, mellow male ruminations of “Joseph,” featuring the recurring phrases “I sit up, I stand down,” suggest confession, fear, resignation. “Veronika” is a surprisingly strong song, featuring an assertive woman’s voice and a beat to match (silent song breaks add drama); and, the woman’s voice—that of singer Veronika Coassolo—offers a corrective, a “what might have been” if the person she was involved with had remembered and respected her. There is no way to listen to that song and others and not be impressed, once more, by the fact that Tricky is so open to female collaboration. Tricky, a ladies man who describes much of his life as girl-watching, has spoken of his identification with the female presence and voice. One of Tricky’s admirers, Laurence Bell, an executive at the music company Domino that distributes Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand and is bringing Knowle West Boy to the public, has stated, “He’s like a black David Bowie. I remember seeing him on “The Word” in drag, singing a punk-rock cover of a Public Enemy song.”

“C’mon Baby,” a song of entreaty, of attempted seduction, features rock guitar riffs and a dance club beat. The centerpiece of the album Knowle West Boy may be the song “Council Estate,” the first single, a recounting of birth, childhood, early education, and social conflict; and the conflicts described are classic—between daily frustration and pride, between daily frustration and ambition, rooted in the fact that a child is who he seems to be and more than he is perceived to be (he is his potential). Of course, the child in the song becomes famous.

“Did I hurt you bad? Did I make you sad,” asks a woman, the narrating singer, in a soft somewhat spacey voice (Lubna, a French-Moroccan singer), in “Past Mistake,” which has a slow, solitary beat, and a dreamily hypnotic sound.

“Coalition” makes a reference to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song that suggests movements of mind and matter too profound and subtle for a passive, consuming audience. (The irony is that the surveillance of contemporary life—the imposed surveillance and the voluntery surveillance, due to required official forms and necessary approvals, interfacing computer databases, the internet, cell phones with cameras, etc.—suggests that at some point in the future absolutely everything will be televised.) The song “Coalition” is one in which different social identities are claimed, thereby flipping predictable scripts; and yet the narrator cannot leave behind conventional gender expectations. What comes between men and women (and consequently between some men and other men) never seems to change. The last lines of “Coalition,” then, are not a surprise: “When I talk, it just becomes noise. How can I be surrounded by people and still be lonely?”

A song about belief and disbelief, “Cross to Bear,” is full of atmosphere, featuring a light female voice and the Tricky beat, with the words, “It’s not my cross to bear. I just don’t care.” Uptempo, and good enough to inspire dance, is “Slow,” apparently a Kyle Minogue song that Tricky loves. (The magazine Uncut, in its August 2008 issue, called the song “a hilariously inappropriate cover version.”)

Returning to a theme touched on in “Coalition,” the song “Baligaga,” which features a West Indian voice and mentions Jamaican gangsters, makes a comparison between television and reality, between image and real life angers and hungers. “Gonna last, I’m gonna last,” insists the singer in “Far Away.” There is a male voice and a female voice singing alone and in harmony in “School Gates,” an ironic and even terrible harmony, as they recount one of the trials of youth, an unplanned pregnancy; with a bell-encrusted, heavy beat, the song is a twenty-first century ballad, from Tricky, who is currently touring in Europe, Asia, and Australia. (DG, August 2008)