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Tricky

Tricky with DJ Muggs and GreaseJuxtapose Island

Trip-hop godfather. Hip-hop aficionado. Pot-smoking paranoid. Eccentric artist. Whatever. Tricky has never shied from trying different directions, though no matter where he roams he'll never have the same impact he did on his first record, the five-star Maxinquaye. Still, claustrophobic, slow beats, smoky keyboards and Tricky's own scratchy THC-scarred vocals are worth seeking out when the main man is twisting the knobs. He can explore fantasies of his mind in first person or detach from the proceedings and let others sing for him -- occasionally on most of his records and exclusively on the guest vocalist-only Nearly God record. Too often on Juxtapose, though, Tricky stops halfway down the alley of his sonic wanderings, giving only a bit of his depraved creativity.

The current exploration finds the man born Adrian Laws employing street-credible rap producers DJ Muggs (Cypress Hill) and Grease (DMX) for his fifth album. Which is not to say Tricky isn't still the overwhelming presence. He is. But Muggs and Grease make great partners. Muggs's tracks for Cypress Hill are the closest thing to trip-hop in commercial rap today, what with backgrounds of dark, horror film soundtracklike stuff supported by bouncy drums. The original plan was for the duo to cut something hip-hop-styled, but in the end they devised only two songs, "Call Me" and "Wash My Soul." That these are two of the most realized of the nine songs and one remix album is telling and begs the "what if" question.

The Grease-produced songs suffer in contrast, not hip-hop enough, too mainstream to be freaky. But this is a Tricky album first and foremost, despite the contract-required, shared billing. His raspy voice and dense sound are in effect, but the tempos are a bit faster and the production crisper. The drum machines and keyboards aren't diffuse, the instrumentation is simple, and, in a nod to the rock world, both "Bom Bom Diggy" and "Hot Like a Sauna (Metal Mix)" feature crunchy guitars. The sharpness pays off with the circular, propulsive bass line and acoustic guitar of "Call Me." It's as spooky and groovy as anything in the Tricky catalog.

But what makes Juxtapose seem like a transitional record is the lack of a consistent vocal collaborator. While Tricky has let others, including PJ Harvey, be his voice, he is at his best when he can bounce it off someone dependable. Martina Topley Bird, his longtime singing partner who has gone on to a solo career, is missed. Neither of the two female vocalists on Juxtapose, Kioka Williams and D'na, can parry with Tricky the way she did. And British rapper Street Dog stops the record's momentum cold on "I Like the Girls." It's not the ludicrous triple-X fantasy lyrics that make the track a stinker, though they certainly help. It's Dog's frantic, Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony-meets-No-Limit cadence that is at odds with the spiraling keyboards and moody atmosphere. A much better match for the iconoclastic Tricky would have been Kool Keith, a rapper who has proven himself adept at singing blue lyrics and is as eccentric as Tricky but with a strong rap pedigree. Tricky's embrace of hip-hop isn't the problem. It's his choice of mouthpiece.

Unfortunately, at only 35 minutes the bad moments weigh too heavily, and it's not necessary to include two different mixes of "Sauna." Dark princes like Tricky are a rare find, artists who can creep listeners out but give them something to chill out on as well. With the brevity of this record, hopefully Tricky has more, and better, work ready to come out soon.

 
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