In no small part due to the enduring efforts of Massive Attack and Portishead, trip-hop is commonly regarded as a dark, noirish and adventurous genre. Indeed, for a period it became a short-cut to a cool credibility with artists as diverse as Janet Jackson, Radiohead and The Flaming Lips trying it on for size (with varying degrees of success). Inevitably, it also created its own cottage industry of acts whose less abrasive variants on the sound became lumped in with chill-out music and achieved a level of ubiquity due to endless compilation albums and use as incidental music on television.
London band Morcheeba were, both creatively and commercially, one of the most successful of these descendants and vocalist Skye Edwards’ cool lilt is known to many, even if they don’t realise it. Songs like Tape Loop and Part of the Process have a level of recognition which belies their modest chart positions. It’s no surprise, then, that when Skye departed the band in 2003 their fortunes took a slide so calamitous that even her return for 2010’s Blood Like Lemonade couldn’t return them to the Top 100.
In her time away from Morcheeba Skye ditched her surname and released two solo albums, neither of which garnered much attention. Back To Now, her third effort, confirms that if Morcheeba didn’t work without Skye, the converse is unfortunately also true. Baffling lead single Featherlight accurately skewers itself (and much of the album) with the line “I feel featherlight, I might just float on through.” It’s so slight and insipid that it fades into nothingness, making no demand for attention.
That’s not to say that the album is unaware of the pitfalls it faces. Skye almost inadvertently became synonymous with the kind of chill-out music which played in the background of wine bars and supermarkets, and great efforts are made to distinguish Back To Now from this. The album opens in arresting fashion with Troubled Heart’s dramatic, dark chants but the song’s verses feel anaemic in comparison. Late electronic flourishes bring much-needed energy, but it’s not enough.
Skye’s voice is, it must be said, part of the problem. Undeniably sweet and styled, it lacks texture and contrast and simply can’t sell some of the more strident material here. Nowhere, a darkly possessive track, falls flat as stabbing strings do their best to bring the sinister urgency which is almost entirely absent from the vocals. This lack of grit is underlined in Little Bit Lost, a glam stomp reminiscent of Goldfrapp which merely leaves you thinking how much better Alison would have delivered it.
Skye’s voice is better suited to more low-key and laid-back songs like We Fall Down, which recalls her work with Morcheeba. It builds nicely and its use of a heavily-processed vocal effect gives something for Skye to bounce off. In fact the album’s production, by Grammy winner Steve Fitzmaurice, is arguably the real star here. Polished and busy, it strives to keep your attention and at times its genuinely astonishing. At several points such as Every Little Lie and Dissolve, the backing track brings to mind an ’80s Giorgio Moroder soundtrack. The latter is the album highlight, its portentous synths and multi-tracked vocals lending essential weight which allows Skye to shine (and suggests the soundtrack to Drive as an influence).
Nonetheless, such successes are few on an album which admirably attempts to expand Skye’s palette but ends up revealing her shortcomings. A return to Morcheeba cannot be far off.