Way back in the late '90s, Morcheeba answered charges that it was yet another Portishead clone by making music that periodically bested its predecessor. Portishead may have pioneered the trip-hop formula—troubled female singer, coldly plodding beats, spy themes—but Morcheeba boasted great songs that didn't need the embellishments. Perhaps that's because Morcheeba's division of labor allowed the music to pull free of the mood: Brothers Paul and Ross Godfrey split up the songwriting duties, then let vocalist Skye Edwards give life to their shared creation. The result? Who Can You Trust? and Big Calm still stand as strong all-around efforts, whereas Portishead seems to have buckled under the weight of expectations. Oddly, Morcheeba waited until it was one of the last trip-hop bands standing to suddenly switch gears. Anyone looking to Fragments Of Freedom for more moody and melodic anthems of melancholia will be disappointed, at least part of the time. The disc flirts with dozens of styles, with so much diversity from track to track that the album never quite builds up artistic momentum. But several moments are more than worthy of the band's legacy. The folk, hip-hop, and blues fusion of "World Looking In" features the kind of sneaky hook that hits are made of, but the album immediately jumps to the sunny Sly Stone soul rave-up "Rome Wasn't Built In A Day." The perkiness is initially off-putting, especially when the upbeat streak continues with the disco vamps "Love Is Rare" and "Shallow End" and the steel-drum-led "A Well Deserved Break." Those songs are fine and adventurous in their own right, albeit surprising for a group that didn't seem inclined to break the mold. But the way the Godfreys appropriate '80s house-party funk (vapidity and all) and hip-hop with "Love Sweet Love" and "In The Hands Of The Gods" (featuring Biz Markie), respectively, is undeniably appealing. While the moodiness of Morcheeba's earlier albums is missed, this stylistic switch—either a bid for commercial play or just a goof—isn't all that bad. Promoted just right, Fragments Of Freedom could be the sleeper party album of the year.

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