Morcheeba shows off the ‘Big Calm’

By The Columbia Chronicle

Bruno Vandervelde

Staff Writer

Sleepy British band Morcheeba showed surprising spunk at the Park West last month in support of their latest album, “Big Calm.” Morcheeba’s music has always been calm, but on this, their second release, they portray a different kind of repose than on their first album.

Morcheeba, which consists of brothers Ross and Paul Godfrey and Skye Edwards, appeared on the music scene in 1996 with the gorgeously gloomy “Who Can You Trust?” With a minor hit single, “Trigger Hippie,” and some shameless plugging by the band’s label, they garnered critical acclaim and a fervent following. The album was dark, thoughtful, and under-produced enough to give it some credibility and add to the mysterious theme — who can you trust?

Backed by the Godfreys’ instrumental proficiency, Edwards’ silky smooth vocals ring with loneliness and disappointment. The slow, groovy rhythms that dominated the first album (e.g. “Tape Loop”, “Post Humus,” the title track) and the use of organs and scratching were reminiscent of “Dummy,” the stupendous debut from Portishead that had been released two years before. Portishead and Morcheeba have been compared all along, though ‘trip-hop’ (a term coined to describe their music) has largely fallen out of favor.

The flavor of Morcheeba’s debut album perhaps limited Edwards’ made-for-lullaby vocals to be impressive but cautious — they were not especially risky or as ear-grabbing as Beth Gibbons’ of Portishead. With “Big Calm,” however, Edwards’ confident voice breaks out into higher octaves and different inflections, and the band itself seems eager to shake things up a bit. On “The Music That We Hear,” the band does an upbeat remix of “Moog Island,” a song from their first album, and they even try their hand at reggae in the eclectic “Friction.”

“Big Calm” shows the tremendous evolution and maturity of the band. Still present are the organs, the scratching, and Ross Godfrey’s heavily-favored wah-wah pedal. There are more subtle differences, though. The album cover depicts a deep red retro-style living room with a restful woman in a recliner — a far cry from the tense, blurry gosh-knows-what cover of “Who Can You Trust?”

Morcheeba need not worry about success. Their Park West show was sold out Sept. 25, filled with young groovoids bobbing their heads to a nearly two-hour set that leaned heavily on the new material. Edwards played with the crowd, even engaging in a singing test with the audience that turned into “Let Me See,” a funky serenade from “Big Calm.” Ross Godfrey showed off his extensive collection of guitars (he used at least five different axes throughout the evening). Paul, in the meantime, stood towards the rear of the stage, diligently manning the turntables between the drummer and the keyboardist that the band had employed for the tour. The stand-in bassist provided some startling back-up vocals to compliment Edwards, who wore her hair in bright orange Ani DiFranco-style braids. A solely instrumental rendition of the title track “Big Calm” ended the show. The song, which is the most similar track to anything on “Who Can You Trust,” features a rap by Jason Furlow on the album, but in concert ended with Ross’ guitar distortion.

After having been lumped in with Portishead and the rest of the mostly British ‘trip-hop’ bands, Morcheeba have forged their own way out of that self-limiting category while maintaining some of the tenets of the genre they helped bear. Having shifted more toward a (dare I say it?) pop vibe, there are endless possibilities for the band’s sound, and their next album will hopefully have some sonic surprises. Though another Morcheeba album won’t be produced for some time, the word on the street is that a Portishead live album will appear in the US on Nov. 3. It promises to be exciting to hear how two of the most ground-breaking and intriguing bands of the 1990s evolve and expand into the millennium.