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Music Review: Massive Attack – Blue Lines

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Viewers of the TV drama House know its pulsating theme song “Teardrop” by Massive Attack. This exposure has gained the band more notoriety, particularly in the United States. But their 1991 debut, Blue Lines, ranks among their finest work. Blending hip-hop, R&B, and electronica, Massive Attack managed to create a unique sound still unequaled.

Highlights include “Safe from Harm,” an R&B-inflected song with a hypnotic beat; the sexy “Unfinished Sympathy,” heard in many early ’90s films; and “Lately,” another soulful mid-tempo song. “Hymn of the Big Wheel” defies categorization, but keeps the “trip-hop” vibe of the album. Vocalist Shara Nelson is a powerful source on many of these songs, transforming them from electronica into almost gospel-like heights.

Still from Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy" videoMassive Attack does not neglect its hip-hop roots; in fact, they utilize a unique rapping style. Instead of masking a cockney accent, members such as Horace Andy emphasize it, adding a unique twist. “Five Man Army” features clever lyrics, a strong backbeat, and reggae-style guitar work. “Daydreaming,” one of the more accessible tracks on the album, deftly blends rap, soul, and trance into a beautiful yet infectious groove. Even those who may not consider themselves trip-hop fans can appreciate the soulful yet playful tone of the song. Blue Lines also includes the British single “Any Love,” which marks the first appearance of Tricky, the trip-hop pioneer that found solo success after leaving Massive Attack.

Another noteworthy contributor to the album is Neneh Cherry, who charted in the ’90s with singles such as “Buffalo Stance” and “Buddy X.” An interesting addition to the album, “Be Thankful For What You Got” is a perfect rendition of William DeVaughan’s 1974 hit. Perhaps Massive Attack included that track to pay homage to their R&B roots. It does illustrate the link between “old school” soul and the group’s modern twist on such a sound. In contrast to the rest of the tracks, this cover remains almost obsessively faithful to the original. However, somehow the song fits in with the rest of the album, serving as a bridge between soul and hip-hop.

While Blue Lines experienced great success in England, it barely charted elsewhere. Perhaps the album was way ahead of its time; since then, groups such as Portishead, Gorillaz, Bjork, and Thievery Corporation have further refined the trip-hop sound. But Massive Attack virtually invented the sound, and few artists have duplicated Blue Lines’ genre-spanning sound. “Teardrop” may have whetted appetites for Massive Attack, but Blue Lines is not to be overlooked. Treat yourself to a unique—and challenging—listening experience.

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About Kit O'Toole