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.”
Omar also recommends self-respect in “Keep Steppin' ” (“We all have our own ways of moving/ Sometime the other people can't see we're grooving”) and salutes summer delights in the title track (“Playing ball in a local park/ Buy your girlfriend an ice cream”). “Making Sense of It” even manages to be rather annoyingly cheerful about unemployment: “Show us the way to live and learn and feed our minds/ So we can build for the future times/ Let nothing ever mess with our pride,” Omar asks.
Such well-adjusted sentiments are commendable — and boring. Omar sees the whole world (including, in “Confection,” his dick) as dessert, and his evident sincerity doesn't make this happy talk any more compelling. Fortunately, some of these arrangements really are confectionery. Despite the mostly stripped-down contemporary sound, For Pleasure rivals the falsetto highs of mid-'70s American soul and funk on songs like “Keep Steppin',” “Magical Mystery Way,” “Confection” (with backing vocals by Mica Paris), and the title song.
Such pop-funk classicism provides Omar the musical means to transcend his more banal pronouncements. Still, if the trip-hoppers' noirish disorientation can seem merely trendy, sometimes Omar's positivism just sounds like denial.
Massive Attack plays Thurs, July 13, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000. Omar plays Fri, July 14, at Bimbo's 365 Club in S.F.; call 474-0365.