You could perhaps call these folks the grandchildren of trip-hop (you remember, that how-slow-can-you-go, mostly British subgenre that decelerated dance music to a creepy crawl and that functioned as bedroom music for narcoleptic lovers). Day One are two twentysomething white boys from Bristol, England, whose left-field take on multicultural post-hip-hop pop helped them score a high-profile deal with Massive Attack’s Melankolic label. The likewise Bristol-based Baby Namboos are a collective led by one Mark Porter, who had no formal music-making experience prior to 1998. Having been encouraged to rock the jukebox by his cousin Tricky (who signed the outfit to his Durban Poison label), Porter and company spent 12 months in the studio carving out a full-length release.
From listening to the Baby Namboos’ Ancoats 2 Zambia, it’s clear that congealed, molasses-slow musical blood runs in the family. “Provoked,” like many of the album’s tracks, could easily have been culled from Tricky’s unreleased archives. It even features the trickster’s ragged, jagged lung-cancer-patient croak, not to mention a bass-heavy quaalude groove, simple reverb-laden guitar riffs, and—you guessed it—silky (but asexual) female vocals.
Tricky’s cousin even shows him up somewhat—the three tracks on which Tricky guests are better than most of his last proper solo album, Angels With Dirty Faces. Compared to Tricky’s increasingly loose, obtuse production aesthetic, Baby Namboos sound focused. Nevertheless, Porter has taken a page from his relative’s book, in that the Namboos’ songs establish their presence purely on mood, trading in any semblance of structure for the occasional hypnotic beat and a dark, disturbed ambience.
As for Day One, despite being picked up by Massive Attack—the folks who originally brought you Tricky—this twosome (Phelim Byrne and Donnie Hardwidge) are related to trip-hop in the same way that Savage Garden are related to Split Enz. In other words, sort of, but not really. They even have a song called “Truly Madly Deeply,” though it sounds nothing like the Savage Garden wedding weeper of the same name. With its subtle screechy viola, minor-key piano chords, and brooding spoken-sung vocals, it sounds more like those glossy Aussies going through methamphetamine withdrawal while listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico. It’s okay, but (like a couple other cuts) it downplays Day One’s biggest strength: their ability to conjure up the loveliest of melodies.
Much of Ordinary Man falls within a category I’ve labeled “pretty sad music” (that’s pretty, as in “beautiful,” and pretty sad, as in “pretty darn sad”). Day One find beauty in the most morose of feelings, especially during the title track, which concludes the album. Sporting a tune so simple and instrumentation so sparse it makes Jonathan Richman sound like Rick Wakeman, this piano ditty has Phelim Byrne singing brokenly: “This voice of mine is far from refined/I guess I have to accept that I’m just an ordinary man.” Ending on this bummed-out note, the album doesn’t offer much hope for ordinary men and women, but pop music doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness as much as it can empathize with the way we already feel and, therefore, make us a bit less lonely.
For instance, the almost danceable shuffle of “Trying Too Hard” is held together by a story-rap about failing to hook up with that potentially special someone. The song’s cool demeanor is torpedoed by warmth and humor, not to mention goofy dog barks and telephone rings. Its smoky jazz-club beat-poetry vibe is more of Maynard G. Krebs sitcom than Allen Ginsberg pretension.
Although Day One are part of the Beckian school of cultural collage—they have equally absorbed navel-gazing folk, hip-hop, rock, pop, and jazz—their lyrics are decidedly pre-postmodern. (Or is that post-premodern? Or just modern?) Their narratives go from A to B, and sometimes on to H, but without skipping C, D, E, F, or G. There is none of Odelay‘s lyrical macramé or, for that matter, Highway 61 Revisited‘s poetic pileups and stream-of- consciousness drunken-driving detours. I’m surprisingly compelled, in part because the stories are believable but also because Byrne’s barely emotive voice doesn’t try too hard or tax my suspension of disbelief. He really does seem like an ordinary guy, one who can easily slip into the skin of other regular folks. And, at times, that’s more refreshing than a whole chorus of arty bards sporting fly devil’s haircuts.