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Iconic trip-hop band Portishead delivers
surprising, rewarding Third

by Jack Baur

third coverIf you are under the age of forty, chances are you have made out with somebody while listening to Portishead.

Portishead’s debut album Dummy was released in 1994 and became a harbinger of the trip-hop movement (which included fellow Brits Massive Attack, Tricky, and Morcheeba).  The album combined atmospheric samples from jazz albums and soundtracks of the ‘60s and ‘70s, languorous hip-hop inflected beats, and the distinctive vocals of Beth Gibbons into a moody, noir-inflected brew.  Their 1997 follow-up Portishead traded in samples for live orchestration but maintained the previous album’s down-tempo style.  Both of these albums are classics, and if you don’t own them you really should.  They’re also both sexy as hell, and back in my undergrad days, hearing either blasting through a closed dorm room door was roughly the equivalent of seeing a sock on the knob.

Now, eleven long years after the release of that second album, the Portishead gang has seen fit to unleash their new album on the world, aptly titled Third, and the first thing that will strike the listener is how different this iconic band sounds after so much time: sounds that were once impossibly clean and smooth are now rough and harsh, drenched in echo, sounds swimming in the mix.  I actually wondered at first if the songs I downloaded had been mislabeled, as this was nothing like what I was expecting. 

The album’s opener, “Silence,” begins with a voice speaking Portuguese (I think) that sounds like it’s coming from an old radio.  A driving drum beat picks up the end of the man’s speech, muddy and much faster than anything that’s appeared in any of Portishead’s previous works.  It is not until a high violin playing a single, steady note comes in, countered by some slow, clanging guitar chords, that I started to recognize the band’s sonic fascinations.  After nearly three minutes, everything suddenly drops away to make room for Gibbons’ familiar voice.  “Tempted in our minds/ tormented in our lie/ wounded, I’m afraid inside my head/ falling through changes,” she coos in what is half a mournful wail and half a sly come-on. 

There’s no mistaking it now.  We’re definitely in Portishead country, but it’s changed a lot since we’ve been here last.  It’s darker and the familiar elements are twisted, and Gibbons’ voice has to work overtime to hold the clatter around her together.  Sometimes it fails and falls underneath, leading to the most powerful moments in an overall very powerful album.

The best thing about this album is how surprising it is.  The band employs all sorts of little tricks – the sudden drop off at the end of “Silence,” the morphing of guitar ballad “The Rip” to a synth and drums rocker, the staccato rhythm that drives “Machine Gun,” the gentle ukulele (!) and muted back-up singers in “Deep Water” – that really keeps the listener on their toes.  It fits well with the band’s mysterious demeanor and, unlike their previous loop-based songs that unfold readily, these demand attention and engagement.

Though it is admittedly jarring at first, by my third listen to Third I was an avowed convert, and see it as a bold jump forward for this iconic band.  As for the sexiness quotient, I haven’t actually tried making out to it yet but I’m pretty sure it can be done.  It’s certainly worth a try… What have you got to lose?

June 27, 2008
Vol. XII Issue 4

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