Album: Martina Topley-Bird

Quixotic, Independiente
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The Independent Culture

In the publicity-obsessed Nineties, Martina Topley-Bird was a tantalising enigma. Having provided darkly sensual vocals on Tricky's seminal 1995 LP Maxinquaye, she kept an admirably low profile, refusing to be photographed and leaving the talking to her garrulous collaborator. Aside from vocal contributions on Tricky's subsequent Pre-Millennium Tension and Angels with Dirty Faces and the odd guest slot on records by such disparate artists as David Holmes and Porno for Pyros, we've heard almost nothing from her. It has taken until now for Topley-Bird to summon the courage to write some songs of her own.

A dark and dreamy album, Quixotic is as original and authentic as anything you'll hear this year. With its wide-ranging reference points - soul, jazz, old-time folk, vintage blues - Quixotic could have been made over a period of decades rather than years. From the gospel-blues of "Intro" and the Eastern promise of "Ilya" to the twitching electronic grooves in "Ragga", it manages to sound at once old and new. The album has some heavyweight collaborators, among them David Holmes, the arranger and composer David Arnold, the Californian metallers Queens of the Stone Age and, of course, Tricky, though none can eclipse the haunting presence of its author.

Even with its array of moods and textures, Quixotic is guided by Topley-Bird's extraordinary voice. While it has retained the sleepy, cracked quality aired on Maxinquaye, it seems to have grown fuller and richer. Though it occasionally brings to mind Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, her voice mostly defies comparison; husky and shrill, smooth and raspy, tender and tortured, it's like no other.

Given Quixotic's lengthy inception, it's not surprising that one or two songs sound rather overcooked. The piano and keyboard arrangements in "Soul Food" are too polished; "I Still Feel", though not a bad song, lacks the skewed invention of other tracks and sounds out of place. By contrast, "Lullaby" - "There's a fairy tale you never learnt to read or write/ Oyster shell you never learnt to look inside" - in which Topley-Bird sings over the bluesy strains of acoustic guitar, is striking in its simplicity. Here, her voice seems to go up several octaves, achieving the effect of a small child locked in a cupboard. In "Sandpaper Kisses" she's barely singing at all, more mumbling absent-mindedly over a propulsive bass drum. The lyrics are tantalisingly ambiguous, though darkness is never far away - "Don't make a mark on me/ I don't bruise so easily," she rumbles on "Need One". This is an astonishing record; we can only pray that it doesn't take Topley-Bird eight years to make another one.

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