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Portishead – Portishead

September 12, 2007

With Dummy, Portishead cemented their niche in the world of trip hop, and honestly had no obligations to carry out afterwards. Dummy was a fantastic album, good enough that even if the group had stopped there and made it a one time deal, the album would not have faded into obscurity. In any case, Portishead’s early end has always felt slightly unrealized. Portishead only made two studio albums, one live album, and a few stray singles, b-sides, and rarities. It takes a very special band to be this appreciated with so little for fans to go on.

The self titled album has always been the overlooked one. Dummy was clearly the better album, and considering the band only really had two albums, that makes Portishead the bands worst album. This curse of relativity is unfortunate. The truth is, it’s a great record that appeals to fans way more than direct connection with the masses through the radio.

In comparison to Dummy, Portishead is darker and more adventurous. It is more elaborately produced, detailed, and complex. While Dummy had some more tender moments (the sublime It Could Be Sweet and the jazzy Sour Times), Portishead is a blistering, difficult album that pulls no punches. In that way it is a logical step forward from Dummy, but it lacks some of it’s simplistic charm. Then again, listening to a follow up to an album as iconic and popular as Dummy entails some unfair expectations. This album was never supposed to be a direct sequel. It has it’s own identity. While it may be lacking in comparison, it stands pretty strong on it’s own.

Or at the very least it expands on Portishead’s repertoire in a way that gives the short lived group more form. The opening song, Cowboys, pins the albums style, to a certain extent. Beth Gibbon’s voice is now more jazzy, regal, and brave. The music that accompanies it is significantly darker and more big sounding. What accompanies the signature heavy beats and well placed scratching are more disjointed and disturbing melodies. Even when Gibbons is belting out some of her more positive lyrics, the music is disturbing and perverse enough to warp the end result.

This switch from melancholy to disturbing is interesting, even compelling. Being partial to the fact that this really isn’t supposed to be Dummy 2 doesn’t hide the fact that the albums most interesting and compelling moments occur when the music gets vulnerable. Mourning Air makes use of cold, chilling cymbals and subtle horns. This is surely almost as breaking as Roads, which is a pretty great accomplishment. Undenied is also a slower, more touching venture, which somehow manages to feel somewhat warm with it’s loneliness. That meaty bass thumping always does the trick. The closing Western Eyes is a really shockingly vulnerable way to end Portishead’s last album. After gently introducing a piano melody and one of Gibbon’s most beautiful performances, a jazzed little piano roll is the quaint, subtly biting end to the album. These songs make a little more sense, and give the album clarity.

But no less important are the muscular, more big sounding songs that are distinct to the album. Cowboys is a fantastic opener, and is only complemented by the skilled use of strings and horns on All Mine. Seven Months is actually a fit of anger, in a sexy sort of way, and is about as liberating as Portishead gets.

While Dummy might be the focal point of Portishead’s short lived career, it is really a shame to stop there when such a good album is up for grabs for further listening. On one hand, the bands self titled sophomore album has some uninspired moments, specifically Half Day Closing and Only You, two easy picks for worst Portishead songs. The flipside is that there are many songs here that stand very tall and give the band more depth. It is a little more difficult, but it yields great rewards upon further exploration. Despite the fact that it is miles behind it’s predecessor, this is an album that is worth attention for reasons other than the fact that Portishead had very little material for people to feast on.

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