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Main Category: Mope Rock
Also applicable: Art Rock, Electronica
Starting Period: From Grunge To The Present Day
Also active in: --------



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DUMMY ****1/2

Year Of Release: 1994

I think Robert Christgau called this album "Sade for androids" or something - much as I dislike the guy (why do most of rock criticism's big names think it's their duty to trash ninety percent of talented artists so that they could properly extol the virtues of the remaining ten percent? ah well, never mind), he sure came up with a good definition. Except that the record has really little in common with Sade, and the very reason why I give it such a high rating is that, contrary to expectations, androids will never get as much out of it as your average human will.

Because this is actually "trip-hop gone human(e)". Dummy is an album that might have fared well even if it were not set to constant electronic beats; in fact, while none of Geoff Barrow's turntables really feel totally out of place, I don't think they are such an integrally necessary part of the songs either. This is a gloomy, deadly depressing (and I don't mean Nick Drake-style depressing, which is "contemplative" and "intimate" at best; I mean really really friggin' depressing so keep your razor blades safely locked away if you're one of 'em sensitive types) singer-songwriting record which just happened to be produced by a guy who was heavily into new recording and playing techniques at the time. Where your average trip-hop usually means dancing to it, I can't see anybody in his right mind to dancing to this music, not anymore so than dancing to any given Doors or Joy Division album.

What I do see is putting this on late in the evening and just trying to suck it in all at once. It's one hell of a nightmarish trip, if you ask me, and more or less exclusively due to the talents of Beth Gibbons. She sings like no one else in the business, and she doesn't even have that strong a voice. In fact, she's sort of a "darker twin sister" to Debbie Harry of Blondie - both had little range and little power, but both compensated for it with attitude. Yet where Debbie Harry's attitude was the classic "naughty girl" one, Beth's attitude is that of the classic depressed suicidal type. Her voice sounds like it could crack at any moment - and more than that, I often get the impression she's just one step away from cutting her veins on any of those tracks, right there in the studio.

Whoah, this is an evil album. And on every subsequent track, Beth's suicidal delivery, the impending monotonousness of the everpresent trip-hop beats, and the dreary synthesizer backing tracks which often sound as if they were taken out of a professional horror flick with a lot of suspense, all of these just keep hammering this evil further and further inside our heads. Every vocal hook on the album - and there are plenty - is bent upon making the listener more miserable than the minute before. Every following instrumental melody is intent upon being even more spooky than the preceding. And geez, once you finally realize how little is actually necessary to achieve that kind of effect, it's the spookiest realization of all. Although perhaps not; perhaps the spookiest realization is how hideously catchy these songs all are, to the extent that you might even want to sing along with them. Brrr!

Plus, there's mystery. Or 'Mysterons', to be correct: 'Did you really want? Did you really want?' goes the chorus on that one, and it's not quite clear what we really wanted, but the more it goes on, the more I keep wanting to admit that no, I really didn't want, and even if I did want, I definitely don't want to want anymore, if only this nightmare of turntables, musical saws, and depressed whining would end. But it ends only to be reborn in a more evil mood with 'Sour Times', where the chorus goes 'Nobody loves me, it's true' - and it's perhaps the most desperate "nobody loves me!" ever uttered on record. Of course, several seconds later Beth adds "...not like you do", but it's way too late by that time.

On 'It Could Be Sweet' Gibbons chills the listener with the shrill, thin-as-a-silk-thread yelp of 'you don't get something for nothing!' (indeed) and then goes on to inform us that 'I don't wanna lose/What we had last time', but obviously she is losing it, hence the utmost desperation in that thinny-thinny-thin voice. 'Wandering Stars' grinds on in a most cruel and monotonous way - a lament for... for... for pretty much everything. The way she does it, you'd really think Beth was recording this inside death row rather than in the safety of a recording studio. 'Wandering stars, for whom it is reserved/The blackness of darkness forever' - and cruel laughing turntables, kind of like stupid mocking jesters pulling faces at ya from the outside as you're sitting there contemplating the last moments of your life.

I have no idea where they sampled the orchestration on 'It's A Fire' from, but it doesn't sound unlike Mozart's 'Requiem', you know; obviously, these guys didn't choose their sources at random. I have no idea why I haven't died listening to 'Roads', which is even more depressing than 'Sour Times'. 'How can it feel this wrong from this moment?'. Dammit if I know. I guess I feel right because I'm feeling wrong, ain't I?

Oh, and the album ends with 'Glory Box', which is the band's signature tune and which is slightly less depressing than the rest, actually, because Beth actually gives her voice some power this time around - culminating in the forceful 'I just wanna be a woman!' refrain. Every reviewer is obliged to say that it's based on an Isaac Hayes sample, because if he doesn't say that, then some astute commentator will come along and inform him that it's based on an Isaac Hayes sample; therefore I will save the commentators their trouble and say that it's based on an Isaac Hayes sample, even if you probably already know that from the All-Music Guide or a million other sources (because I don't believe you've learned of this album from this site, you know). Anyway, the important thing is: Adrian Utley's guitar solo on the song is classic, and so is the jarring crash-boom-bang break towards the end of the song - which is, you know, kinda like the last definitive PUNCH you need to finally collapse under all the gloom and doom.

Overall, a satanic masterpiece, and I haven't even mentioned all the backwards messages. A couple of the songs actually don't cut it too well as far as hooks go, and "mood albums" aren't really my preferable cup of tea, so I refrain from the maximum MP3 rating, but this is still top level stuff. You have to go through some really bad shit in your life to make a record like that, you know; I wouldn't want to find myself in Ms Gibbons' shoes.


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