My recent deepdive into the world of triphop was sparked by summer boredom and my love of 90s animation and music. More specifically: the incredible soundtrack of MTV’s animated show Downtown. The tracks were heavily triphop centric, and the score created by Kimson Albert was full of industrial breakbeats and synth that perfectly matched the grime of the show1. Until this point, I’ve always been fairly turned off by triphop, seeing it as one of the worst outcomes of the 90s music trends—I don’t tend to like electronic music, and I greatly preferred every other genre it borrows from. (And some songs sound creepily like sonic realizations of the visuals of the early Windows operating system and my hazy memories of the public library trips I took as a kid… on a semi-related note, anyone else hate “Porcelain” by Moby?). Despite Portishead’s 1994 album Dummy being one of my favorite albums, it’s taken me years (and thrifting a CD of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines this fall) to truly fall in love and find my place within the genre.
What is triphop? As far as genres go, it’s a blurry one, mostly defined by certain bands than by a cohesive sound. At its base, triphop songs begin with hip hop beats. Downtempo psychedelic electronica and dreamy vocals are often layered on top, integrating jazz, post-rock, and reggae inspired elements2. Specific genres such as acid jazz and IDM (intelligent dance music–think Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada) are closely related to triphop, having simultaneously created and come from the genre; a real chicken and the egg scenario. The most known bands of the genre include Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky, with an honorable mention to Moloko. Not many others seem to properly join the ranks of the greats, so I was determined to find smaller bands that meshed with the classic 90s sound. This is where Laika appears, a beautiful combination of true triphop and unique production that made me fall in love immediately. (I also found another great and very small band called T.H.C. via YouTube, who is included in the playlist). While Laika is certainly more underground than their counterparts, they deserved to be recognized as a lasting gem of the 90s triphop world.
I was initially drawn in by Laika’s cohesive themes and playful track names, and then into Good Looking Blues‘ wonderfully lush and fully realized space dream. Laika was founded in London and was active from 1993 to 2003. The core members include vocalist Margaret Fielder, producer Guy Fixsen, with a rotating cast of bandmates. Fixsen worked on MBV’s Loveless, and with The Breeders and Throwing Muses; Fielder played with PJ Harvey, and was in a band with Moby as a child3. Having opened for Radiohead and Tricky, Laika was continually well received4. I find Laika to be most related to Portishead, delivering their triphop beats with a moody and distinctly 90s alternative electronic atmosphere of sound. Heavily influenced by jazz and hip hop, Fixser quotes that they were “less afraid to show their influences”5. It is apparent on this album, as Laika combines their own eclectic mash of samples, beats, and many different instruments, which are then topped with Fielder’s dynamic gauzy vocals– rapping, speaking, and singing throughout. Good Looking Blues was the band’s third album, matured and well rounded. Laika took a different approach to writing the album, and it was created as a live album before being converted into the electronic studio-recorded version5. Both thematically and sonically, Good Looking Blues seems to further explore and complement their 1997 Sounds of the Satellites. (I highly recommend that album as well). The album cover (above), features the famous dog of their namesake, and sets the tone for a haunted space adventure. Tracks to note: “Black Cat Bone” and “Badtimes.”
In short: Good Looking Blues is full of perfect mid century lounge sounds, best listened to during your space voyage, or in your conversation pit on the moon.
- Here kitty kitty… “Black Cat Bone” sets the album with an explosive takeoff. Mischievously upbeat, the track knows exactly where it is headed. We are first introduced to the lush ambience of Laika and Fielder’s demanding yet laid back lyrical whispers. Probably my favorite track on the album, I love the absurdity and immediacy.
- Nearly more swamp than space, “Moccasin” keeps the tempo going, building on the repetition of “Black Cat Bone.” The journey has already just begun.
- Now settling down and finding the groove, “T. Street” is a track best listened to when watching comets pass by. You know the wobble sound that a sheet of metal makes?
- “Uneasy” carries a upbeat sound with catchy lyrics and flow that intertwines with steady synth. It may be a distraction, however, the lyrics sound like they are sung by Laika the dog, alone and cold. One of my favorite tracks. I’m picturing the dashboard lights flashing in a frenzy.
- “Good Looking Blues” is one of the strongest true triphop tracks on the album, immediately bringing us into an eerie jungle breakbeat and shifting the mood of the album into something darker. It takes nearly three minutes for vocals to begin, and the lyrics seamlessly blend into the sunken moodiness of the track. As the title track, I think it stands in the shadows of some of the other stronger songs on the album. Even so, it is essential in the space journey, trippy and mesmerizing.
- Chaotic jazz elements return in “Widow’s Weed,” still riding the dark mood from the prior song. Erratic clarinet and sound effects, most likely used in a Scooby Doo haunted mansion episode, jump in and out over the beat and move the song between Fielder’s singing. In our spaceship, the dashboard lights are still flashing—but now something has gone awry.
- Crisis averted: “Glory Cloud” is here! The shortest track on the album at 3:44, “Glory Cloud” pivots back into dreamland and into the second half of the album. No other way to describe this song than to say the genre is space. Stars. Nebulous ambiguity. Anticipation.
- “Go Fish” stands out as a track due to the unique vocals as Fielder raps and sings. Layers of her dreamyness play with funked-up bass, steady drum beat, cricket/bug sound effects, and psyched-out guitar.
- “Badtimes” is a bedtime story about a bad time. The bad time in question? An evil email virus. Yet another beautifully unique track featuring a spoken story that stands apart from the album in such a way that makes it fit perfectly. Pure hypnotism grabs you before the absurdity does: “Badtimes will make you fall in love with a penguin. It moves your car randomly around parking lots so you can’t find it. It will kick your dog. It will leave libidinous messages on your boss’s voice mail in your voice. It is insidious and subtle. It is dangerous and terrifying to behold. It is also a rather interesting shade of mauve.”
- “Knowing Too Little” is the epilogue to the wild space journey of Good Looking Blues, showcasing Laika’s triphop lounge. Laidback guitar, full of rich tones, accompany Fielder’s raspy, firm whispers. In my opinion, the track falls short by following the rush of “Badtimes;” its length brings the listener back into the world begun in tracks 3 and 4, and is a somewhat unsatisfactory end to the album, even as a strong track by itself. Regardless, it is reassuring: the next day, the two suns will rise again, planets will shine, and the expanse of space is still yet to be explored.
Good Looking Blues proves to hold the variety and a unique flow of tracks that make an album great in my eyes. While it’s hard for me to remember to return to albums that hold a distinct concept or theme, I think that Good Looking Blues will stay in the running. In my never ending love for an era that ended before I was even born, Laika will feed my obsession.