There was no bigger cliche, in the music once known as trip-hop, than the sultry female vocalist singing over an electronic chillout beat. It was a formula so overused and abused that it eventually caved in on itself, turning the genre into pure background sounds. Passion disappeared, boredom ensued, and an era ended.
While pioneers such as Massive Attack and Portishead led the trip-hop charge with an audacious mix of experimentation and accessibility, darkness and beauty, other groups had a harder time standing out.
Morcheeba falls into this latter category. Brothers Paul and Ross Godfrey took care of the music while singer Skye Edwards provided the requisite dreamy coo. At its best, the British group had some lush, evocative tracks. At its worst, it was banal and played it too safe; but the band sold records.
Morcheeba's latest, Diving Deep, is both a surprising return to form and a creative leap -- OK, bunny hop. Using an array of guest vocalists, both male and female, Morcheeba gets its groove back on the strength of some new sounds, and solid songwriting. (www.morcheeba.co.uk)
So what happens when you take away the girl? After experiencing the proverbial "creative differences," the Godfreys parted ways with Edwards in 2003. Their next album, 2005's The Antidote (still under the Morcheeba name), was a commercial and creative disappointment on which new singer Daisy Martey inevitably got compared (mostly unfavourably) to Edwards, and the songs just didn't cut it.
"We made a mistake on our last record," said Ross Godfrey, from a tour stop in Philadelphia earlier this week. "After working with Skye for so long, the record company insisted we retain the band formation. We didn't feel it was relevant. We wanted to draw from different collaborators, more like a travelling circus . . . We always felt that Morcheeba was limited by the fact that we weren't working with different vocalists."
The band's latest, Diving Deep, is both a surprising return to form and a creative leap -- OK, bunny hop. Replacing Martey with an array of guest vocalists, both male and female, Morcheeba gets its groove back on the strength of some new sounds, and solid songwriting.
Norwegian singer-songwriter Thomas Dybdahl's raspy croon carries three moving tunes, while Judy Tzuke's brings a soft folk touch to two more, French songstress Manda lends a romantic touch to Au Dela, and friend Bradley Burgess gives a '70s feel to the John Martyn cover Run Honey Run.
The varied roster puts the group in line with Massive Attack, Zero 7 and Washington D.C. duo Thievery Corporation -- laid-back electronica acts without a permanent singer, who call in favours when needed. For fans of Edwards' breathy voice, the sting of the split is soothed by the effectiveness of the new material.
"Skye got kind of bored," Godfrey said, explaining Morcheeba's membership shuffle. "She wanted to write her own stuff, and we really didn't feel we wanted to do similar things, so we asked her to leave the band. It was best for (all) of us. It was becoming painful. We had a love for each other, so before it went sour, it was sort of a preemptive agreement. It was reasonably amicable."
Read between the lines and take from that what you will. Edwards has gone on to a solo career (performing at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last summer), and reportedly has a baby on the way. While not ruling out an eventual reunion, Godfrey said that he and his brother -- who "doesn't enjoy touring," and is at home in England -- came into their own on the new work.
"It was the first time we didn't feel any pressure," he said. "It's like, now we've got nothing to prove and we can get on with the music. It's important (for things) to feel natural . . . We've been through the mill, as it were. We've done a lot of music we liked, but there was also a lot of pressure to conform to something you're not . . . Now it feels like we're free to do what we want."
Which is another way of saying Morcheeba is no longer on a major label, namely Warner Bros. Diving Deep is out in North America on electronica imprint Ultra Records. Making the album provided personal challenges, Godfrey said.
"Our music is always quite emotional, but this was therapeutic in a way. We've had our ups and downs over the past few years. My brother was suffering from depression, and we've both had problems with drugs. So it was a good time to deal with deep-rooted issues. Diving Deep felt like going inside ourselves to see what was there, battling our own personal sea monsters and coming back rejuvenated.
Morcheeba plays Toronto March 30
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