A joint effort with Wild Bunch co-founder DJ Milo and drummer Luke Harris, Skilled Mechanics is proof that Tricky, in all his stomach-knotting disquiet, is probably best left alone. With his band in tow, Thaws' music lacks its usual cutting-edge standard of production. The dazed mysticism of Maxinquaye and the nervy clatter of Pre-Millennium Tension are nowhere to be found. On tracks like the monotonous tilt-a-whirl that is "Diving Away" (an unlikely cover of the 1996 alternative rock track "Porpoise Head" by Porno For Pyros) or the forgettable ballad "Bother," what should be tension feels more like calculated quirk.
The issues boil down to a lack of complexity. Skilled Mechanics sounds too studio-ready, as if produced with unobtrusive presets to deliver trip-hop beats sans trip. So the focus shifts to Thaws' ear for rising vocal talents, including the smoky speak-singing of Francesca Belmonte and the razor-sharp flow of Chinese rapper Ivy 艾菲. Thankfully, their talents bring a semblance of spice to an otherwise bland dish.
The beloved menace that once made Tricky so rousing is still present in Skilled Mechanics. No one invigorates dub's bleakness quite like him, with all those off-kilter growls and harrowing rhythms. That force is present in the distorted ringtone synth of "Necessary," or the stilted radio static in "Beijing To Berlin." But the two-minute songs should've been teased out further, extended in ways that allow their dark moments to ferment. Mostly, the album needs more of Thaws' gruff rumble—maybe that could have saved limp lines like, "Where she goes, nobody knows."
There are traces of grit on Skilled Mechanics, especially on standout track "Boy." With enough coarse energy to keep you queasy two songs later, it's an intense, three-minute attack of long-stewing resentment. But those few powerful moments are the exception rather than the norm. Their rawness is an essential element that could have lent Skilled Mechanics the sort of organic, internalized anxiety that once defined Tricky.