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Photograph by Lee Powers

Flayed Souls: The Baby Namboos find redemption on the other side of despair.

Alchemical Opposites

True trip-hop resurfaces in Baby Namboos, courtesy of Tricky and Aurora Borealis on 'Ancoats2Zambia'

By Michelle Goldberg

TRIP-HOP, that strange mélange of hip-hop, soul and dub reggae, flavored with strains of film noir soundtrack and indie-rock angst, has grown undeniably flaccid in recent years. Almost as soon as musicians such as Massive Attack and Portishead appeared and made Bristol, England, the geographic center of the early-'90s musical innovation, cheesy imitators like the Sneaker Pimps crashed the party and turned trip-hop's trademarks--delicate vocals playing over deep, dubbed-out bass and loops of slinky spy music--into tired tropes.

Former Massive Attack member Tricky, the paranoid, contrarian genius who is the genre's most public face (despite his consistent rejection of the term trip-hop), reacted to his music's sudden trendiness by turning inward.

By the time his third solo album, Angels With Dirty Faces, arrived, his sound had become so abstract as to be nearly opaque to all but the most patient and devoted listeners. Perhaps he simply wanted to deflect mass culture's sadistic prying by hiding his confessions behind layers of dark, often impenetrable noise.

Although Juxtapose, his fourth solo album, was Tricky's most accessible since Maxinquaye, it was also his first without his collaborator Martina. The tenderness and suspicious sweetness she had supplied was deeply missed. While still brilliant, he sounded past his artistic peak.

Perhaps Tricky simply works best in a family: Massive Attack, after all, was formed out of the Wild Bunch crew, a sound system and DJ collective; and Martina and Tricky have a daughter together. That theory would help explain the unexpected profundity of Ancoats2Zambia, the debut record from the Baby Namboos, a band led by Tricky's cousin Mark Porter and Tony Quigley.

Tricky appears on several tracks (one of which is partially a reworking of his "Analyze Me," from Angels With Dirty Faces), and the album was released on his Durban Poison label. Miraculously, Ancoats2Zambia takes a genre that seemed played out and infuses it once again with passion and possibilities, proving that the down-tempo experimental hip-hop that Massive Attack and Tricky pioneered is still vital.

Giving too much of the credit for this disquietingly gorgeous album to Tricky would be unfair. Everyone on the record is astonishing; there are no weak moments. Porter and Quigley's soundscapes constantly skirt the clichés of the Bristol sound with conga-style drum loops, weird echoes and pulses, expertly deployed keyboards, tripped-out dub production and strange wisps of sound that evanesce as soon as you become aware of them.

It's dark but, like Maxinquaye, astoundingly accessible. Like Massive Attack's Blue Lines, Ancoats2Zambia features several voices: Tricky's raspy hiss, the deep rap vocals of Claude Williams and, most of all, Aurora Borealis' pained, throaty croon. Borealis sounds like a cross between Martina and Breakbeat Era's Lennie Laws. Occasionally, she's slyly enticing, sometimes maternally comforting. Often, she's the incarnation of female anguish and excruciatingly maintained pride.

Tricky's greatest strength has always been the way he inverts the self-aggrandizing culture of hip-hop, turning all the genre's anger against himself and letting it ferment into paranoia. Borealis does something similar from a female perspective, making herself as raw and vulnerable as P.J. Harvey. Although Martina sang on most of Tricky's albums, she was parroting his lyrics. Borealis, both banshee and diva, owns her own words.

In the scorching "Holy," Borealis embodies the flip side of bodacious hoochie girls like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown. Those singers appropriate the sexed-up stereotypes that the media projects onto black women and turn them into a kind of power. Both use the common postfeminist trick of turning lust into armor; if they're hos, they're also their own pimps. (This strategy is hardly unique to women in hip-hop--it was invented by Madonna and perfected by hordes of female sex columnists, feminist porn stars and the like).

While those women present a highly stylized front, Borealis exposes a flayed soul. Set over ominous, echoing beats that conjure shadowy alleys and leaky pipes, "Holy" is a song about sex work that transcends shallow sexual liberation cant to explore the psyche of a whore trying to hold on to herself in a world set up to annihilate her. "I'm not the girl I used to be," she repeats both desperately and defiantly, before insisting, "But I am holy."

Borealis begins the song parroting the power-slut ideology, singing, "I chose this life/They're all suckers," but her voice is so cracked and desiccated that she seems to be trying to convince herself more than the listener.

"Holy" isn't a moralistic jeremiad against the sex industry, but neither is it a shallow celebration of it. Rather, the song provides a devastating, visceral glimpse of a woman reckoning with her compromises while maintaining her dignity. When Borealis insists, "I am holy," she's not posing as a goddess-worshipping priestess hooker. Rather, she's holy because she's human, something all her world is determined to deny.

THROUGHOUT THE ALBUM, Borealis projects a kind of feline self-respect in the face of tribulation. On the title track, she asserts, "There's no such thing as a wasted life," a defiant sentiment in a world where anyone not jacked into the engine of multinational commerce is considered superfluous at best. She shares Tricky's sense of devastating frustration, but while Tricky wallows in inertia, Borealis claws at the walls. In her desperation for escape, we hear a shard of hope.

When Borealis appears on the same track as Tricky, the collision between such strong, opposing personalities is alchemical. "Provoked" starts with Tricky repeating the words from his "Analyze Me," a despairing, defensive confession directed at a rapacious public. "For those who want to analyze me, my mother committed suicide when I was four or five," he speak-sings.

The music to "Analyze Me" was desolate and harsh, but here a soulful, almost cradling melody creeps in, as if Porter and Quigley were trying to embrace and soothe Tricky with sound. Then Borealis appears, singing, "You won't give up," with world-weary confidence, adding the uplifting "You're star dust, baby, and you're gonna shine," toward the end.

"Analyze Me" was about fatalism, exhaustion, dejection. But "Provoked," like almost all of Ancoats2Zambia, resonates with hard-won redemption, both musical and spiritual.

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From the February 16-23, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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