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Human Machine

Lately, it seems like no one wants anything to do with trip-hop's baggage -- not the godfathers of the genre, Massive Attack, and certainly not its bad-seed cover boy, Tricky. The loose definition of the style -- slow, slinky hip-hop beats peppered by languid, often spare instrumentation and somewhat paranoid implications -- can, at times, encompass everything from Madonna's Ray of Light to Robbie Robertson's latest work. So it's no wonder the innovators of the form want nothing to do with the name anymore.

Early in their career, trip-hop's most soulful -- and perhaps, most approachable -- purveyors, Morcheeba, used to beg off the association, as well. These days, though, the English trio is too busy to be concerned about labels. As Morcheeba DJ Ross Godfrey says, "We don't care. Call us what you like."

And that makes sense -- at least for Morcheeba, an enigma that is, in essence, a blues/R&B band hidden beneath layers of techno enhancements. Less cold and sterile than much of the electronica crowd, Morcheeba revolves around the human axis of singer Skye Edwards and Ross's guitarist brother, Paul. On the group's latest CD, Big Calm, Edwards's honey-coated vocals are delicious even when the lyrics veer toward the unpalatably neurotic; Godfrey, for his part, is the latest in a long line of British blues fanatics unafraid to twist the music into something new. Big beats definitely figure heavily into the Morcheeba mix, but the living, breathing element is, by far, the group's strongest feature. With a guest spot from Beck turntablist DJ Swamp, Big Calm hasn't abandoned technology in any sense -- just warmed it up a bit.

Putting a human face on trip-hop has always been Morcheeba's calling card. Formed in 1994, the threesome was quickly snatched up by the Sire Records Group, releasing the critically acclaimed Who Can You Trust? two years later. A bluesy, stoned affair (it featured a picture of a marijuana plant on its cover) pinned down by heavy Zeppelin-on-codeine grooves, the record was a marginal left-field hit. After touring with Fiona Apple and producing nine tracks on David Byrne's Feelings (the Godfrey brothers were part of his backing band), Morcheeba returned this spring with the more fluid and diverse Big Calm.

While many groups of their ilk are content to steal snippets of sound from others, the members of Morcheeba frequently sample themselves. Still, there's very little digital anything on Big Calm, and most of the rhythms are played on a traditional drum kit. The analog warmth and directness of the release comes about, in part, because the band was already comfortable with the material, so there was no need to hash it out in the studio.

"We had the songs written the same time as we wrote the songs for the first album, so we were very used to them," says Ross. "When we went into the studio, it only took us two months to record the whole thing -- so it was very direct in that sense. It's still very blurred as far as the subject matter and the genre of the music that we are trying to play. That's good, because if you keep music open-ended, then there's always endless possibilities. As soon as you confine yourself to a format, then that's kind of it for you creatively."

Big Calm's blurred boundaries have led to increasing success for Morcheeba, according to Ross, who is beginning to see the more tangible results of the group's heightened status. "We are a lot more in demand, which makes our schedules a lot busier," he admits. "It makes it harder for us to do the things we used to do -- which is just be mindlessly creative. And we've been on the road for about, well, forever. Things have changed because we're just more successful, even though we're not very much richer."

But Godfrey isn't exactly sure how making more money will factor into Morcheeba's future. "That means we sell lots of records, and people want to talk to us all the time, I guess. I'm not sure. I quiz myself about the meaning of it all the time," he laughs.

There's no mistaking Morcheeba's meaning in concert, where they typically take the "less is more" approach, turning the volume down to draw listeners in.

"Because it's all played live and there's no triggered things from sequencers, it's loose and slightly more raucous," Ross says. "It's just more entertaining. There's much more of a funny side to it. We're not a completely serious band. We sound quite serious on record, but that's because a lot of people don't get the ironic content of the songs. It's just nice to show that we're kind of happy, normal people who are doing a job, really. The human side of Morcheeba."

An additional human element comes courtesy of Edwards, who has been pregnant during the recording of every Morcheeba release thus far.

"She gets confused," Ross quips. "When the record company says, 'This is the delivery date,' she thinks she's got to deliver a baby."

Morcheeba performs Thursday, September 10, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Tickets are $12. Doors open at 8 p.m. Pernice Brothers and DJ Sun open. For info, call 629-3700.

 
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