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Morcheeba 

Fragments of Freedom
(Sire)

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Morcheeba's first two albums -- 1996's Who Can You Trust? and 1998's Big Calm -- were trip-hop by the numbers, as the slinky beats, sulky vocals, and scratchy surface noise represented some of the clichés of the hip-hop-meets-electronica genre. But there was also a stinging professionalism to Morcheeba's music that was lacking in its contemporaries' similar sounds. Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky all appeared to be feeling their way through as they went along; Morcheeba, on the other hand, seemed to know exactly what it was doing. Yet, the band's sterile approach took away part of trip-hop's charm -- which is to say, it stripped the music of its very essence. On its third album, Fragments of Freedom, the London trio of Paul and Ross Godfrey and singer Skye Edwards deconstructs trip-hop; rather, it turns the gloomy music upside down to reveal the aural equivalent of a big, shining smile.

A mélange of R&B convention and electronic wizardry designed for dance-floor fun, this is trip-hop for a summer's day. The stylistic shenanigans that have always been the focus of the music are still here, but this time they play along with the songs, rather than carry them. Cameos by cult hip-hoppers Biz Markie and Bahamadia make Fragments of Freedom Morcheeba's most listener-friendly record, and songs such as "World Looking In" (with bluesy slide guitar) and the loopy title tune are among its most musically diverse offerings. Fragments of Freedom doesn't come near any of the golden opuses of trip-hop (Tricky's Maxinquaye or Portishead's self-titled debut), but it does bring the played-out genre into a brand new world -- one filled with sunshine and playful pop.

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