Bird without songs

Martina Topley-Bird: Quixotic ***

Independiente, 12.99

There once was a schoolgirl,

sitting on a wall, singing away absently to herself. A not-very-handsome but soon to be admired musical prince strolled by, heard the girl’s voice and was captivated. He asked her to run away with him to the studio and add her dulcet tones to the classic album he was making. And so the enigmatic Martina Topley-Bird came to prominence as the remarkable girlish voice on Tricky’s singular cover of Public Enemy’s Black Steel, recorded when she was 17.

It’s a winsome fairytale with a bittersweet ending. After her audacious debut, Topley-Bird slipped further and further into the shadows as Tricky’s albums became darker and less engaging. Her personal relationship with her mentor also disintegrated, although he’s back fleetingly on this album, growling on the sidelines and apparently taking on some production duties.

Nine years since we first heard Topley-Bird on Tricky’s debut album, Maxinquaye, she remains one of the voices of trip-hop, alongside Portishead’s similarly evocative Beth Gibbons. For her debut solo album, she has stuck to what she knows. Quixotic is the Bristol sound revisited but updated sufficiently so as not to sound anachronistic. It has some of the scratchy claustrophobia and non-songs of Tricky, the dub rhythms and swooning strings of Massive Attack, and the spine-tingling vocal veneer of Portishead.

Like Tricky, she has limited interest in the conventions of what the Brits committee have dubbed “urban” music, preferring to distil the raw influences of blues and soul into a more rarefied recipe. Looks good on paper, huh? But the album is not quite as dynamic and oddball as one might wish for. Topley-Bird seems to be less concerned with making bold sonic statements than chipping away insidiously with subtly shifting tones. Noble and intriguing intentions, maybe, but the results sound like another coffee table/dinner party album in the making.

At times – the chilled retro rhapsody of Soul Food, for example – this could almost be a Morcheeba album; no bad thing in itself, but occupying such easy territory doesn’t square with the rather pretentious publicity quotes from Topley-Bird about how the title relates to “myself reflected, expressed at the mercy of my ideals”.

The brief intro is an intriguing blues gospel a cappella, the kind of thing Moby would sample for his latest car ad soundtrack. Divested of ubiquitous dance beats, it’s a captivating start. Then it’s straight into the contrasting rocky sound of the single, Need One, a surprisingly chunky track, offset by the cute Cockney inflection to her vocal. The muscle is provided by her guest contributors, Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan of the irrefutably rocking Queens Of The Stone Age. It’s probably the most emasculated track they’ve ever put their names to, but then, it’s Topley-Bird’s party and she can do what she wants to. As her debut solo single, it’s neither particularly representative, nor particularly satisfying, as it ends up in that futile no man’s land between rock and pop.

Anything is a change of mood again, a yearning, swelling, acoustic ballad that’s happy just to rely on simple but heartfelt melody and lyrics. It’s the most conventional track on the album – and also the best. Lullaby has similar potential to beguile but doesn’t really go anywhere and, beyond admiring the clarity of the voice once again, there isn’t much to dwell on.

Too Tough To Die brings out the Billie

Holliday in Topley-Bird’s voice and the PJ Harvey in her music, contrasting her gospel-style vocal with a defiant grungy blues groove that paws the ground with menace. Things mellow out again on Sandpaper Kisses, a track that is much softer than its title, gliding along on understated ripples of percussion. Llya features those heady Asian strings that are everywhere right now in a subtle, airy arrangement that also has space for some bursts of xylophone muzak without sounding at all cluttered.

But as Quixotic progresses, its main weakness is exposed – Topley-Bird suffers from a distinct lack of songs and after a number of consecutive, inconsequential wafts of agreeable ambience, it becomes hard to think of this album as anything other than the thinking fan’s background music.

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