Massive Collection (New Zealand Sunday Star Times 2nd April 2006)
Grant Smithies is still mesmerised by one of Bristol's finest.
In June last year I found myself in a packed marquee in England watching Massive Attack's Grant "Daddy G" Marshall play a DJ set of his favourite tunes. His brow furrowed in concentration, his scrawny arms hanging from his T-shirt sleeves like licorice straps, Marshall pulled a steady stream of brilliant records from a scuffed record bag and dropped them on to the turntables.
The tent seemed to billow outwards with the power of the basslines, and the drum beats cracked like gunshots, but there were honey-dripping harmonies aplenty too. Marshall played Jamaican dancehall and roots reggae, American soul, British hip-hop, movie soundtrack records with heavy orchestration, some dub, a little down-tempo techno.
I lay in the grass, entranced. Here was the early Massive Attack sound I'd always loved, broken down into its constituent parts. And now and then, whenever a new bassline would drop into the mix or an old soul 45 would hit a particularly sweet spot, Marshall would lift up his head, gaze out into the marquee of swaying bodies, and his sombre face would split into a broad white smile.
Now Marshall is back home in Bristol, sipping tea and yawning as he contemplates the first Massive Attack compilation album. It contains 13 well-chosen tracks from across the band's 15-year recording career, plus one new one, a collaboration with Chicago folk-soul singer Terry Callier. And for $10 more you can buy a special edition version with a second disc of rare material, remixes and DVDs. Without a single duff track, it's the kind of "best of" that should be a doddle to promote, but Marshall is having difficulty dredging up enthusiasm for it.
"To be honest, man, I'm knackered," he says, his deep Bristol burr giving the word knackered at least half a dozen extra "r"s. "I've had three kids in the last four years, so it's busy here at home, you know. But yes, sure, it's a strong record. People familiar with our music wouldn't expect anything less."
This is certainly true. In a career spanning four studio albums, two movie soundtracks and a host of remixes, Massive Attack has let us down only once, with 2003's tiresome 100th Window album. The trio's 1991 debut album Blue Lines remains a classic. For this record Marshall and band-mates Robert "3D" Del Naja and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles enlisted the assistance of Jamaican singer Horace Andy, Bristol rapper Tricky and soul vocalist Shara Nelson and set out to anglicise American hip-hop by incorporating musical styles they'd grown up with in their native Bristol - rare groove, dub and soul, along with the early house and rave records then prominent in British club culture.
Darkly cinematic one minute and buoyantly soulful the next, interspersed with dense stoner-friendly raps delivered in working class Bristol accents, it's an album that still resonates through much of contemporary popular music.
"We were just three kids from DJ backgrounds, interested in mis-matching things, you know, putting styles together that didn't usually overlap," Marshall says. "DJ culture had started taking over from rock bands in the late 80s, but the music was very frenetic and crazy, so we went into the studio to deliberately make a slower record with a lot of space in it. There was nothing else like it when it came out. It really filled a niche."
Actually, it filled several niches. Blue Lines and its 1994 follow-up album Protection not only captured the underground audience of squat-dwelling spliff-heads, post-E ravers needing a comedown soundtrack and budding Brit-hop fans; they also became the dinner party albums du jour for a self-consciously stylish middle class audience who wouldn't consider buying a hip-hop record. But it couldn't last.
As with fellow Bristolian mood merchants Portishead and Tricky, most Massive Attack songs are too detailed, too sad or too sinister to make good background music. Mainstream audiences rapidly moved on, embracing the lighter, more accessible social soundtrack provided by the dreary likes of Morcheeba, Groove Armada, Sneaker Pimps, Lamb and Moloko.
"Our first few records certainly became a template for lots of bad bands, but I don't want to slag any of them off by name," Marshall says. "Let's just say that we never considered what we were doing to have anything to do with what they were doing."
It was partially to avoid being typecast as part of this insipid trip-hop gang that caused Massive Attack to notch up the darkness and pile on the loud guitars for 1998's Mezzanine album.
"Yes, that's true, but we also wanted to acknowledge our roots. Before Massive Attack we were in this sound system crew called the Wild Bunch, and we'd play punk records as well as the reggae, hip-hop and soul stuff. We always loved guitars."
All, that is, except Vowles, a died-in-the-wool soul boy who was dismayed by the direction the Mezzanine sessions were taking. After months of arguments and occasional fist fights, he left the band, issuing a press release saying: "We hate each other, and I'm amazed we lasted so long."
Neither Marshall nor Del Naja have spoken to him for more than five years. The next album, 2003's disappointing 100th Window, got darker still and lost the band a lot of fans.
Marshall doesn't bother to defend it.
"I wasn't involved with that record, 'cos I'd left the band temporarily to devote some time to my kids. 100th Window was just 3D and (engineer) Neil Davidge, and it was a bit too gloomy for me, to be honest. For this new album we've gone back to making simpler, more soulful beats again."
That album, Weather Underground, is to be released next year. In the meantime, we have Collected, a brave attempt to select the key tracks from a band that has now sold 10 million albums worldwide, 80,000 of those in New Zealand.
"Looking back now, I think Massive Attack did a couple of very important things. Firstly, we came from multi-racial backgrounds, and we were very interested in putting quirky white pop singers like Sinead O'Connor, Tracey Thorn (Everything but the Girl) and Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) on fairly black instrumental tracks. That was very unusual at the time, and still is, actually. Also, Blue Lines in particular helped the British music scene get over trying to sound American. Other British acts listened to Blue Lines and started saying to themselves `hold on a minute. Maybe we don't live in the Bronx'. People started making beats that incorporated local sounds like reggae and tripped-out electronic music, and they started rapping in their own accents. I'm very proud of that."