Posts Tagged ‘portishead’

h1

Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
Advertisements
h1

1. Portishead – Third

January 1, 2009

Portishead - Third

In a year where many notable works were about making great melodies with simple tools, Portishead are all about the opposite – that is, meticulously crafting complex atmospheres and destroying them brutally. Everything from the start of Portishead’s first album in ten years is an utter knock out, and something unlike listeners have ever heard before in the band’s already groundbreaking pop discography. However, almost nothing on Third is poppy, except the greatest pop song of the year, The Rip. And yet we also have what seems to be the ultimate anti-pop, the dark matter crashing of drum machines on Machine Gun. But we also have a gentle folk ballad, Deep Water. In fact, nothing on Third sounds like anything else on Third. The only indication that the songs were even made on the same planet are the still central vocals of Beth Gibbons, which sound like finely aged wine after a decade of relative inactivity. She still hits home runs every at bat, both vocally and lyrically. The second song Hunter initially sounds like the mystical clairvoyance of a crystal ball, until electric guitar rips the curtains apart and Gibbons smoothly asserts “I stand on the edge of a broken sky, and I will come down, don’t know why.” Her delivery is crucial; it is as uncertain as it is asserted, which makes little to no sense in theory, but in practice Third is one of the finest vocal performances heard in years because Gibbons makes the subject of her vocals, heartfelt explanations of social rejection and confusion which she has honed for years, into something completely tangible and utterly scary. But Portishead is a band of more than one talent, and would be lost without the backing music of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley. The dynamic duo craft the band’s most harrowing set of tunes yet, leading off with noir jams that break off suddenly, terrifying organs over cataclysmic waltzes from hell, ever-changing rhythms and jarring atmospherics. The spirit of the album is the dynamics, which will continue to shock, surprise, and haunt until the next Portishead record, and interviews tell us that may not be as far off as one would gather from the bands previous hiatus. However, Third is a house of cards that listeners could be content hearing built up and burned down for decades. It is a horrifyingly heavy album, not in the hardcore Finnish death metal way, but in the classic heavy metal way, or the way in which one feels while extremely sick and when the nauseous world seems to bear down onto the tiniest of breaking points. By the end of the album’s closer, Threads, one might actually believe that the world and everything in it is coming to an end. Of all the hyped reunions of the past few years, Portishead are just about the only to not only match but surpass the hype and their previous work with a monumental album.

Portishead

h1

Portishead – Third

April 29, 2008

I am extremely impressed with Portishead’s willingness to return to their trade after a ten year hiatus. It can’t be easy to get back into the swing of things, but with all of their live performances running back to their curation of last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties to the release of this album, Portishead have proved that they haven’t lost their steam and they are still a staple of their genre.

On the first listen, two songs stood out to me especially, The Rip and Deep Water. Both songs have major tonalities and feature acoustic guitars. What this immediately reminded me of was the tenderness of It Could Be Sweet from the bands debut album, Dummy, although lyrically these songs are still dismal enough to be characteristic of Beth Gibbons’ style while It Could Be Sweet was a unique departure. The Rip showcases simple acoustic arpeggios before it transitions smoothly into a steady rhythm, with the same arpeggios played with a synthesizer. Deep Water is equally as tender and lovely. The song is a simple ukulele strum played over some of Gibbons’ most touching lyrics to date. There is no rhythm, just a fleeting minute and a half of grace and joy.

And then, those dirty little rascals, they use the innocence of Deep Water to highlight the deep contrast of emotions that this album showcases by exploding into its polar opposite. Right when you closed your eyes and fall asleep on the island surrounded by deep water, a B-52 with a giant “P” painted on the side nukes it. Machine Gun is as rhythmically catchy as the band has ever been. It is horny and bass heavy to the point that it is disturbing. Machine Gun is excellent, as it goes back to the vibe of Dummy by succeeding in being tragic as well as sexy, yet this time bare in comparison to the intricate dressings that might be found on the self titled album. A juggernaut of a single, with one hell of a scope.

If that self titled album could be considered a pinpointed rifle shot, Third is a spread from a sawed off shotgun. The years of preparation pay off with a slew of ideas that are successfully pursued throughout. A brutal waltz, gentle elegies, and disorganized shards of emotion are spread throughout the album, yet have several unifying elements. One of them is that they are designed to surprise with various extremes of different musical dimensions. Another is that most have booming bass tones.

The most important element, however, is Beth Gibbons’ vocals. Beth has always been the centerpiece of the music. Make no mistake, the group would be nothing without any one of its members. Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley have crafted music that is exciting and effective, but Beth is half of the puzzle. She has progressed stylistically as well. The self titled featured quite violent, wicked vocal performances. Those on Third are instead fragile, withering, and wispy. A defining moment on the album is near the end of the final track, Threads, where her voice seems to meld with the music. It is hard to say whether the sound is actually her, a synthesizer, a horn, or a guitar, so much as a pulsating body of sound. Then, percussion takes over just as the vocals reach their most expressive projection. We hear her fade out and periodic violent geysers of sound take over, separated by silence. Communication is clearly not an issue with the members of Portishead.

Portishead’s sense of danger and sexual tension finds new ground on Third. Some songs are left deceptively simple and bare, and others are haunted by instruments the band has never used before. In general, Third is dressed down compared to s/t’s dense soundscapes, making the pieces less detailed but more poignant. There are many surprises to be found here. Songs unravel themselves slowly, like on the previous two albums, but it becomes obvious that this album is much less lackluster than it seems at first listen, and it is really more organized, complex, and engaging than either of the preceding albums. Third is, like the other two Portishead albums, a sexy, hip, dark masterpiece, and it completes a triad of excellence.

h1

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.