'Illegal Cargo' is a delicious concoction

Music Notes

Music: In Concert/CDs

October 28, 2004|By RASHOD OLLISON

LADY Z deepens her rich voice a bit, heightening the drama. "It's like a dark street, you know, and I can hear stilettos clicking on the concrete," she says. "I can hear tires splashing the water. And we needed a bass to get underneath that and get underneath you. You know what I mean?"

It all sounds so abstract, but the singer-musician is describing the cinematic mood of the music she made with her partner, Morten Varano. Together, the two are known as Slow Train Soul. And their new album, Illegal Cargo, is one of the most bewitching debuts I've heard this year: a marvel of electronic music that feels surprisingly organic. Warm. Fluid. A haunting nocturnal vibe imbues the record. Lady Z is the vocal enchantress, pulling you into each song as Morten complements her powers with dark, layered beats, muted trumpet lines, lush synths. And, of course, resonant bass lines. "Morten has this way of making things sound very warm," she says, calling from her London home. "It's just in him to do that kind of stuff. Essentially, we both love the warmth of the '60s and '70s sound: the warm bass lines, the congas and the grooves and the mixture of all that. We use live instruments with the electronic ones."

I chat with Morten the afternoon before Lady Z calls, and he elaborates on how the two concocted such a delicious sound.

"I keep reassembling and layering to get it right," says the producer-musician, phoning from his studio in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he also lives. "We put together the bass and the drums from different records to give it a live feel. The sampling is put together differently throughout. You're putting all the pieces together on the computer. The thing is to make sure that it works. It's very important to keep the personality in it."

Lady Z (real name: Michelle Nichol) is a model-thin Trinidadian raised in London. She has a background in jazz and performance poetry; she doesn't reveal age. "It's unladylike," she says with a chuckle.

Morten, a handsome Danish dude, is 33 and a classically trained pianist who has produced electronica and dance music for more than a decade. The two artists hooked up about three years ago.

"She was singing at this club in London," Morten recalls, "and everybody was going completely mad. She was great. A friend introduced us."

"The drummer in the group I was in was a good friend of Morten's," Lady Z says. "I heard [Morten's] music. I liked his music, and he asked me to sing. He said, 'Let's make an album.' And I said, 'Sure.'"

The two worked in Morten's studios, one in London and the other in Copenhagen. In three weeks, the 12 tracks that constitute Illegal Cargo were finished. The feeling in the studio was immediate and inspired.

On Morten's past productions, it was "always a matter to get people to dance to the beat," he says. "But this time, we wanted to bring it down and make songs and tell stories."

"I had the beats in my head, or he had a vision for a lyric of a song," Lady Z explains. "And in the studio, we'd have a little brandy and go to the music. It was pretty much like that, easy."

The singer played guitar and percussion while Morten handled the keyboards and programming. Sinuous trumpet lines on the jazz-suffused "Naturally" and the bittersweet "Stoned Rays" were blown by Kasper Tranberg, and busy percussion on the world beat-inspired "Trail of Dawn" was provided by Frederico Portelli. Floating above or snaking through, Lady Z's blues-steeped vocals enrich the smart arrangements.

"Illegal Cargo is one of those records where you have to be lucky that it goes into the pop scene," Morten says, his accent thick and charming. "It's not produced as an underground record because it's polished. It's not crucial that it goes pop. If it does, fine."

Lady Z says, "We did what we felt was natural. For me, the music is just there. It's real."

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