Toronto Quartet Lal Dodges Trip-Hop Label

The Hogtown-based group's principle songwriters admit that some of their best songs are born of battles

Earlier this month, reports surfaced--for what seemed like the umpteenth time--that Portishead is finally recording a new album, the band's first since its self-titled 1997 effort. Eight years on from that epochal full-length, it's hard to imagine the Bristol-based duo being able to revitalize the genre known as trip-hop.

Still, if there's anything left to be mined from that form, Portishead might want to take some cues from Toronto's Lal, an ensemble that is helping define what trip-hop sounds like in the 21st century.

On last year's Warm Belly High Power, which was deemed 2004's best soul album by Exclaim!, the Hogtown quartet wove together a lush tapestry of sounds from all corners of the map, sourced both by way of samples and live instrumentation. Tracks like "Pale" and "Creep" stand out as archetypal, each representing producer Nick Murray's background in dub and hip-hop, and singer Rosina Kazi's South Asian heritage and enlightened social viewpoint. Reached at the pair's shared home in Toronto, Murray rails graciously against my attempts to place his band in a line with groups like Massive Attack and Lamb.

"There's nothing worse than being labelled the political trip-hop band," he says on speakerphone with Kazi by his side. "I like to think that we have our own laneway in terms of our style and approach to making music. Now that we're working on the third album, hopefully we'll be able to kill that whole '90sí‚ ­trip-hop stereotype once and for all."

If anything, Murray would rather have people know that Lal makes "the sort of music that you would hear in an opium den--something that can take you to a different place".

This characterization doesn't go over so well with Kazi, who's proud to bill her band's tunes as quintessentially Torontonian: multicultural, gritty, and cosmopolitan all at once.

"At its best," Murray adds, "Toronto represents the world. So if people say that our music represents this city, then I'd consider that an honour."

If it takes the pair a few moments to agree on a good description of Lal's sound, one can only imagine how long the two need to finalize a song. As Murray is quick to point out, Kazi is his toughest critic, a charge the latter sees no reason to refute.

"Yeah, we have a hard time," she says with a chuckle. "We don't have one of those relationships where we always love what each other does. We battle really hard and we both have strong ideas, but we also are sensitive enough to back off when we know that it will affect our relationship."

When the two hit the Media Club on Friday (January 28), they'll be joined by fellow Lal contributors Ian de Souza (bass) and Rakesh Tewari (percussion), two classy players who lend heft to Murray's electronics and Kazi's airy vocalizing. On Saturday (January 29), meanwhile, the couple will go it alone at the Lamplighter for a stripped-down laptop set, playing the sort of tunes that might make you think Toronto isn't such a bad place after all.