Dubbed Dialogue

The legacy of dub on the U.K.'s Massive Attack and Omar

The times may not exactly be sour, as the Portishead song puts it, but much of the British pop currently being fashioned from American and Jamaican ingredients is far from good-time music. Dub's hollow beats and heavily echoed sound have become leading elements in the U.K.'s dislocation dance, and the results are spacey, spooky, or even downright ominous. It's seldom clear what put the fear into this music, yet it's more emotionally convincing than the positive-minded Britfunk of Jamiroquai or Omar, exponents of fat beats and happy thoughts.

The most prominent current example of Britain's darkly dubby tendency is the Bristol sound -- some dare call it trip hop -- of Portishead, Tricky, and, preceding them, Massive Attack. This slow, groggy music can be lush or spare, but it shares a haunted, unreal quality. Though indebted to such warm, brisk precursors as funk, soul, hip hop, and reggae, Bristol's studiobound sound is not communal or outgoing. Rather, it's the latest anti-dance style that British tinkerers have constructed from dance-club sources -- "an anti-house thing," Portishead mixmaster Geoff Barrow says of his work.

Ironically, Portishead and Tricky have recently taken this music to the stage, embarking on short American tours. Neither successfully conjured its sound in concert, which left much to stage presence and charm (lacking in the case of the former, abundant in the case of the latter).

Though the last to arrive physically in the U.S., Massive Attack is the most veteran Bristol outfit. It released its first single in 1990, and is rooted in the mid-'80s Wild Bunch, whose Nellee Hooper subsequently moved to London to form the fat-beats-and-happy-thoughts Soul II Soul. Hooper co-produced the Attack's recent Protection (Circa/Virgin), which is gloomier and less dance-oriented -- "maybe more dreamy and soundtracky," says Attacker 3-D -- than 1991's much-hailed, little-heard Blue Lines. The band's choice of remixers suggests its current direction: Brian Eno remade the title song for a single, while the Mad Professor and Underdog crafted a dub version of the album.

Making a follow-up to 1991's Blue Lines was complicated by the defection from the collective (it's not exactly a band) of singer Shara Nelson. Protection spreads the vocal assignments around, with two songs each by Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn, Nicolette, Horace Andy, 3-D, and Attack part-timer Tricky. The tour features only Andy and Deborah Miller, a singer who's not on the album, but will add live bass, keyboards, and tabla. (The Indian/Pakistani influence is one distinctively British element in the U.K.'s fashionably polyglot pop.)

Despite their relaxed beats, the two Protection tracks featuring Tricky are dense, edgy, and charged with personal dread. "Karmacoma" and "Eurochild" recast elements from Tricky's even more menacing solo album, Maxinquaye; both songs combine almost jaunty dub beats with suitably foreboding Ennio Morricone-style sweep. Thorn sings about lost love in traditional terms -- "You say the spark's gone/ Well, get an electrician" -- but Tricky seems to have lost something more fundamental, like his soul itself. When he insists that "hell is around the corner," he could be referring to the corners of his own psyche or to those encountered on the streets of Bristol, the one-time capital of the British slave trade.

The spiritual and, to a large extent, stylistic fountainhead for such music is "Ghost Town," the Specials' 1981 British hit. Protection is hardly a political album, but it has an air of disillusionment. Its first lines, sung by Thorn, are "This girl I know/ Needs some shelter/ She don't believe anyone can help her." The music, hypnotic yet severe, offers none of pop music's traditional shelters -- not rapture, not community, not transcendence. The only link is the suggestion, conveyed by a drowsy doombeat, that everyone is "this girl I know ... in need of protection."

Trip hop is sonically sensual but not very sexual; no wonder its best-known line is "nobody loves me," courtesy of Portishead's "Sour Times." Such rue has no place, however, on Omar Lye Fook's For Pleasure (RCA), which is retro more in attitude than in style. Anyone who can write lines like, "It's for the pleasure of leisure," sounds like he's been paying too much attention to Marxist British rock critics, but Omar has actually worked with the likes of Motown legend Lamont Dozier and Stevie Wonder -- and his album is no work of theory.

Basically crisp British synth-funk tempered with a little pop-jazz, this is music crafted for the mainstream, with lyrics that lament broken hearts and celebrate hot sex. "Champagne definitely my style," sings Omar on "Saturday," a song that expresses the classic living-for-the-weekend worldview.

Multi-instrumentalist Omar and his various collaborators show their familiarity with dub's remake/remodel strategies with fleeting tracks like the opening "My Baby Says," a stark 51-second condensation of "I'm Still Standing," and "Magical Mystery Interlude," an even briefer teaser for "Magical Mystical Way." Such fragments are not typical, however; the other tracks are smooth, tuneful, and mostly sunny. "Outside" even counsels "fresh air" as a solution to urban tension: "All I have to do is go out the door/ I know I can't have it all/ I don't have to take it with my back against the wall."

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