London trio Morcheeba jumped to the forefront of edgy-yet-accessible trip-hop with its full-length Who Can You Trust? in 1996, continuing the formula two years later with the fine Big Calm. Unfortunately, the hope for more muscular, atmospheric music from Morcheeba faded dramatically with 2000's weak Fragments of Freedom, and the band continues its slip and slide into ersatz soul-pop on the Latin-leaning Charango. Only listeners able to set aside initial expectations and roll with the new direction are likely to find this latest collection of cuts more pleasurable.
Skye Edwards's sultry, smoky vocals still set the tone for most of the tracks by producer/multi-instrumentalist brothers Paul and Ross Godfrey, who draw from a disparate range of influences. The Brazilian elements on Charango aren't that surprising considering the Godfreys worked with David Byrne before they launched Morcheeba. The most obvious examples are "São Paulo," a lush and languid Latin swing written after a trip to the city; and the title track, which takes its name from (and opens with) the small Brazilian guitar traditionally made from an armadillo shell. After the brief intro, the song evolves into a harder, darker creature altogether, with blippy synths, funky guitar, and feisty turntable scratches underpinning a menacing rap by Pace Won of the Outsidaz.
The album, though, creeps slowly to that climax opening with the moody "Slow Down," a slice of downtempo blues-jazz lounge fare with cool blues guitar and narcotized vocals by Edwards. Still slow but a bit more on the trip-hop tip is "Otherwise," with somber minor-key strings. "Aqualung" provides additional slow-burn trip-hop, this time with a slightly psychedelic flair thanks to Hammond organ and electric guitar work amid more sad, soaring strings and -- in keeping with the tune's title -- flute in one-leg-balancing Ian Anderson mode.
Plaintive slide guitar sets the mood on "What New York Couples Fight About," a beautifully melancholy duet between Edwards and Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, while "Undress Me Now" sounds like a happy, sappy 1960s folk-pop tune owing to heavy orchestration and vocal harmonies.
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Fierce guitar, a swooning orchestra, and rapid-fire rap come together on the vibey "Get Along," once again featuring Pace Won. Slick Rick takes over the mic for "Women Lose Weight," a hilarious speak-and-sing in which the guest rapper tells the story of having to kill his overweight wife so he can get with his secretary -- deliciously un-PC but highly entertaining. The same can be said for much of Charango, although it's much more fitting for the bedroom than the chill-out room.