Trip-hop is an diffusive musical genre that encompasses everything from the smoky, sultry retro-torch of the Supreme Beings of Leisure to the stained, tortured laments of Beth Gibbons. While Portland-based singer-songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman begins her album Rubber Teardrop with a trio of songs that is closer to the former than the latter, it's only after about three songs that she truly finds her true spirit--and it's playfulness, not trippiness. Her innocent and youthful voice hasn't quite developed the edge that comes from years of hard living, so playing it straight and embracing a more light-hearted approach really pays off.
When that fourth song, the title track, appears with its sampled hurdy-gurdy--the winding sound even provides the beat--Rubber Teardrop comes alive and leaves those trip-hop stomping grounds behind. Sure, most of the songs that comprise the last two-thirds of the album boast enough shades of electronica to avoid the feeling of the purest pop, but she's still one of the artists who can be taken in so many different ways--straight pop singer, folkie, goth girl--depending upon how closely you're paying attention.
If you are paying attention, you'll immediately notice the dark, sullen and sexy cover of Elliot Smith's "Between the Bars," which is a smart (same whispery voice) and slightly daring (who else is covering Elliot these days?) choice. "Bridge on Fire" may possess a by-the-book dance beat, but it has a surprising go-your-own-way willingness to rock hard. And every once in a while you'll hear a few seconds of music and voice that remind you something cool like The Notwist or Natalie Merchant.
Finally, the sound quality is absolutely superb (Rubber Teardrop was produced in Portland by Auditory Sculpture)--far from the low-fi grumble of the last Portishead album (which I love, by the way, so that's not a knock). Amid all the electronic noises you'll find bassoons, ukuleles and slide guitars all sounding natural and beautiful. Again, if you listen closely to Rubber Teardrop and gently ignore the trip-hop claims, there's a lot to discover.