Recognized along with Massive Attack and Portishead as one of trip-hop's architects, Adrian Thaws, a.k.a. Tricky, has always been the most downbeat of the bunch, with each of his records filled with murky textures and beats caught between laid-back hip-hop and near-somnambulation. The music's sensual creep was best described by Martina Topley Bird, the mother of Tricky's child and his long-time muse and vocal foil, who sang on his debut LP: "When we fuck, we'll hear beats." The music, however, was always about more than just sex. When Tricky was four years old, his mother killed herself. Listen to any of the previous three albums he has produced as a solo act -- or to his Nearly God one-off project -- and you're hearing the psychological aftermath, the music created by a man with dim impressions of a world filled with dark secrets. He made this morose preoccupation all the more evident by calling his debut record Maxinquaye, his mother's first and last names spliced together. This mix of sexuality and suicide was also revealed in Tricky's signature vocal style. Whether heard as a bitter whisper or affectionate snarl, it was a conflicted sound: fearful, loving, and vicious all at once. In other words, Eros and Thanatos fused to create an ominous psychological cocktail of Freudian dimensions.
The main problem up until Juxtapose, however, has been the questionable practice of allowing Tricky to conduct his own therapy sessions on CD. As with any intellectual discipline taken up by the masses, pop psychology often sounds like psycho- babble, and Tricky's music was no exception, as he alternated commercial success (both his debut and Pre-Millennium Tension) with subconscious muckraking that turned murk into mud. The Nearly God record and this past year's Angels with Dirty Faces were so clouded with melancholia, they were almost unlistenable.
On Juxtapose Tricky has allowed Topley Bird, an apparent enabler, to move on to a solo career, enlisting instead a group of new colleagues. There are a handful of the chanteuse-lite performers that Brit electronica acts seem to go through like bulbs with antique filaments, and British rapper Mad Dog appears on three tracks, proving there's at least one guy in the United Kingdom who can MC. (Weirder still, the rapper looks to the American South for his role models, with a triple-time style cribbed from the No Limit stable and, on tracks such as "I Like the Girls," a pornographic imagination that nods to the tradition of inimitably foul Miami bass acts like 2 Live Crew and the 69 Boyz.) In a sign of true progress, Tricky also shares production and cover credits here with Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs and Grease (the latter known for his work with DMX).
Although the pair collaborates on separate tracks and uses different sounds, each producer has had a similar brightening effect on Tricky's music. Muggs's tracks -- "She Said" and the single "For Real" -- lend Tricky the chug-chug of vintage blue-movie funk, while Grease provides songs such as "Hot Like a Sauna" with a driving pop-rap tempo; the feel here is best described by the title of another of his numbers, "Bom Bom Diggy."
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Clocking in at 35 minutes, including a remixed reprise, the one complaint about Juxtapose is that it's a bit brief, though given trip-hop's tendency to encourage excessive running times in tandem with languid tempos, perhaps this is something to be thankful for. There's nothing like an abbreviated group-therapy session to shake them hip-hop blues.