Pick up any Chill Out/Trip-Hop compilation CD from the end of the 20th century (there were lots of them) and you’ll see a whole host of bands who only flickered very briefly and are almost forgotten now: Sneaker Pimps, Smoke City, Olive, Dubstar, to name a few. They all had a signature song – usually because of it being used in a film or television commercial — but then failed to make much impact beyond that.
London duo Mono were another of those. They released one half-decent album Formica Blues in 1997, and then – poof! – they broke up. The album mostly follows the standard Trip-Hop template of drowsy electronic beats over movie-soundtrack instrumentation, but this single verged away from that into Saint Etienne territory and is all the better for it.
Seeing as what goes around in pop music usually comes around again, you’d think we were about due a Trip Hop revival of some kind given the length of time since it first started. But maybe for a genre to be revived it has to sound dated and a bit cheesy at some point and it still sounds new and fresh out of the wrapper to me.
Apart from a brief Britpop blip when I bought a couple of Oasis and Blur CDs I spent most of the mid- to late 1990s listening to Trip Hop or its mutant offspring Downtempo, Chill-Out, and Electronica. It was the soundtrack when I was dating my wife, and on our honeymoon in New York I bought a copy of Felt Mountain which I heard for the first time in our hotel room so it definitely defined an era for me. Though some of it was derided as trendy background music for designer boutique shopping and middle-class dinner parties, I thought it was the best thing to come out of Bristol since Cary Grant.
I had to pick myself up off the floor when I realized that it’s been over 20 years (20!) since Massive Attack released Blue Lines which, along with Portishead’s Dummy a few years later, pretty much defined Trip Hop and opened the gates to a flood of bands mixing up stoned beats with moody electronics, crackly samples, and cinematic strings. But my favourite Trip Hop album was by another mob from Bristol, the gloriously woozy Come From Heaven by Alpha. I have no idea how well known the album is (probably not much) but it’s felt like my precious secret love since it came out in 1997.
Alpha sloooowed their beats and samples down to a crawl to make hypnotic, somnabulent music that sounded so dosed up on cough mixture it didn’t have the energy to get out of bed — there’s even a track on it called “Nyquil” which I assume is meant to be a joke. With the two lead singers’ emotionally-bruised fragility it drifts along in the most beautiful, foggy haze, like comedown music for the mother of all hangovers (or drug highs, whatever turns you on.) Not that I have those sort of nights anymore, but this first track especially still sets me adrift on memory bliss.
The album that probably should have been called No, Thank You! as it bankrupted Factory Records, didn’t sell much and got terrible reviews. My copy is still in mint condition so I guess I haven’t played it a lot, I did always like this track though.