366 Songs 306: Ponderosa

I’ve written elsewhere about how important 1997 was to me when it came to understanding and accepting music that wasn’t just “white boys with jangly guitars,” but listening to this again for the first time in some years, I realize that Tricky’s Maxinquaye album came even earlier and laid the groundwork. Listen to the backing of this song, and revel in how un-pop it actually is. Here, I’ll make it easier for you:

There’s a lot going on in there; it’s wonderfully layered, percussion playing off percussion to create something akin to melody at times, even when the organ sample isn’t leading you in the background to where it wants you to be. But by the time you get to the sampled, looped “Hey man” in the second half, followed by the piano loop sounding just a little bit off (Too fast, a little manic, especially when it gets overdubbed by itself, just a little out of synch), there’s an entire atmosphere to this track, a biosphere of story and feeling that’s punctuated with noises that come from places that we might not recognize as music elsewhere (The… what, roar of something that follows the piano?).

It’s a brave choice to put as the second track on a debut album (Especially considering that “Overcome,” the first track, is far more traditional in its construction and instrumentation – The pan pipes almost sound accidentally comedic now – and less abrasive to the untrained ear; It was the first single off the album, as far as I remember, although I may be wrong), but it works as the following track nonetheless, and serves as a warning and tease for what’s to follow: “If you like this, then there’s more to come,” if you will.

There’s something seductive about it, as music, even before you get to Tricky and Martina Topley Bird’s vocals on top. Again, this is Martina’s show, with beautifully scratchy, casual vocals that sound playful and sexy (That laugh at 2:36!) while Tricky’s murmuring behind her sounds like an ugliness hidden under the surface, some scary monster and super freak that’s on the same level as the animalistic roar/squawk, ready to jump out and bite when you let your guard down. The illusion of confusion, reflected from lyric to sound to feeling. The track as a holistic experience, disorienting and welcoming all at the same time: An invitation and reminder that it’s okay not to be certain and convinced of what’s to come.

366 Songs 087: Black Steel

“Black Steel” wasn’t the first Tricky track that I’d heard, nor the first Public Enemy cover, but it was the first of both that made me, on first listen, pretty much jump up from my chair and wonder what the fuck was I listening to, and make me wish I could rewind the live TV in front of me (Oh, TiVo, if only you’d existed twenty years earlier). I was entranced, astounded and decided that I would buy the album as soon as I had the chance, which would have to be after the weekend I was going to spend at a friend’s parents as part of a… birthday party, I think? Maybe I’m mixing up reasons and events in my brain. Nevertheless, on one incomplete hearing, “Black Steel” stayed playing in my brain for the three hours or so it took me to get to said friend’s parents’ house, a continual loop of my memory’s version of the song with me knowing that it was completely lacking the… what, the synthetic passion of the arrangement, the detached disdain of the vocals, the way it felt different from everything else I was listening to at the time? All of that, perhaps.

I got to the friends’, and asked if anyone else knew the song or listened to Tricky and was given the kind of response you’d expect from the Britpop-centric crowd we were that day (which is to say, “Tricky who? Isn’t he one of those Trip-Hop people?”). For the next two days, in amongst real life, the riff played in my head at low volume. I bought the album soon after, and realized that I didn’t even like the song that much in comparison with everything else on there.