This ambient-dance-cum-lounge-pop band stationed itself on the frontlines of the Bristol, England-generated trip-hop revolution, which could be considered the Newtonian equal-and-opposite-reaction to an increasingly strident, frenzied techno scene. Deploying an electro-torch sound that skirts genres as varied as spaghetti western film scores, ’80s new wave and modern hip-hop, Portishead (the name comes from the blue-collar coastal town where producer/mixmaster Geoff Barrow spent his youth) is no less bleak than its more obstreperous peers; the group simply refines its anger into elegant resignation.
On Dummy, singer/lyricist Beth Gibbons — whose crystalline, yet downbeat, voice provides a perfect medium to transport the monochromatic emotions into the system — beckons listeners into a landscape that’s at once surreal and poignant. Beneath her quavering soprano, Barrow (who has produced and remixed artists as diverse as Depeche Mode, Paul Weller and Gravediggaz) scatters melodic lines sampled from sources like old War albums and Mission: Impossible. But those oft-used hip-hop elements are transfigured, realizing film noir elegance in this context. The oh-so-chilled beats that made a left-field hit out of the unipolar lament “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)” are also represented in songs like “It Could Be Sweet” (a nonchalant lustfest that’s a study in cognitive dissonance) and “Glory Box” (a mournful dissertation on the tribulations of womanhood). Gibbons proves even more effective when unshackled from the rhythms. She fluctuates from a rickety-but-purposeful quaver to a Sade-like husk on “Numb” and the Cabaret-styled “Wandering Star” — songs that are all but motionless.
Recorded around the same time as Dummy and included on the six-track CD single of “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)” is the soundtrack music for To Kill a Dead Man, a black-and-white short film that Portishead used as its support “act” on tour. Although persuasive mood-setters in their own right, the songs — more like sketches — don’t benefit from their excision for an audio-only release.
It took Portishead three years — not to mention the brink of expectation-generated dissolution — to gestate and bear a sophomore effort, Portishead. It turned out that what the band may have sacrificed in genre-bending originality was made up for in sheer sonic subtlety, variety and emotional depth. With multi-instrumentalist Adrian Utley now overtly a band member, they made a conceptual change; instead of collecting disparate sounds with which to furnish their elegant misery, they simply recorded, distorted and sampled themselves. This makes for a distinctly hermetic Portishead universe. The iconic elements are all still present, but there is paradoxically more life, more attitude, more clamor here. If the songs are less melodically realized than on the Prozac-cabaret of Dummy, they are arguably more startling and engaging in their variations on an admittedly (by now) familiar theme. The opener, “Cowboys,” provides an overview of what is to follow: brooding electro-lounge atop crackly vinyl effects, punctuated by deft turntable contortions and shadowy (Shadowsy?) ’60s guitar twang, all overlaid with Gibbons’ mannered vocals, which are part-strident, part-stricken. Similarly, “Humming” drapes self-esteem-deficient sentiments in a theremin-tinged haunted freak show shroud reminiscent of Dummy‘s “Mysterons.” With nothing quite as stark or bleak as, say, “nobody loves me / it’s true,” Gibbons nevertheless plumbs some deceptively gorgeous depths here, particularly in “Undenied” (a muffled simple piano motif with vinyl crackles suggestive of rain on windows in a distant room) and “Mourning Air” (a brass-inflected dirge in which breathy vocals seem to drag the reluctant beat along, like something horribly wounded).
Elsewhere (“Seven Months”), the noir-ish hybrid of spy movie/spaghetti western guitar is complemented by Shirley-Bassey-meets-Billie-Holliday affectations which can become grating (sometimes the mixture produces a bloodless Eartha Kitt clone). Where it works, however — on, say, “Only You” — the payoff is astonishing; a journey through some timeless memorabilia-collector’s deranged melancholia. There’s a fragile authority to the self-loathing on “Elysium”; it’s like watching your English teacher have a breakdown. Such dangerous fragility is arresting. If Beth Gibbons’ voice is as fragile as a flower, it’s one that drips as many toxins as it does nectar.
On July 24, 1997, Portishead recorded their show at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom and released it the following year. The love album generally known as PNYC features a 33-piece orchestra and horn section. If the idea sounds awful in its pretension, somehow it works. The band has always had a knack of appealing to abandoned goth kids and urban(e) hipsters alike, and not only did they survive this bizarre idea, they managed to rework earlier songs like “Sour Times” with impressive, dramatic results. Only Dummy‘s desolate “Roads” is tragically ruined by an unconscionable audience clapalong.
Arguments have raged over the efficacy or even relevance of the dubious “trip-hop” label. The band members themselves have gone on record deriding its spurious nature, and have resisted such easy categorization. Nonetheless, an interesting question might be posed in the event of a solo excursion: are the disparate components of Portishead’s sound held together seamlessly, or is any one element predominant? Without all the sound and the fury, might we find nothing but emptiness and a merely pretty voice at the core? Or will that voice be the actual glue? A partial answer arrived in 2002, with the release of Out of Season, Gibbons’ album with Paul Webb (formerly of Talk Talk, here credited as Rustin Man), with whom she had worked prior to Portishead. The underrated Adrian Utley also helps with production, and plays on many of the songs, which effectively makes this Portishead minus Barrow, whose absence removes the band’s quintessential sound. Rather than experimentalism, this is warm nostalgia; Gibbons’ versatile voice and an able ensemble of musicians embrace blues, big band, jazz, and folk with equal reverence here. Only the Tom-Waits-meets-Thom-Yorke closer, “Rustin Man,” hints at the intrigue that is Portishead’s stock in trade.
The album is an affecting tribute to Gibbons’ roots, with such standouts as the delicate folk opener “Mysteries” (its first words are “God knows how I adore life,” a sentiment unimaginable on Dummy), on which she sounds like a young Marianne Faithfull, and the slow-building blues potboiler “Funny Time of Year,” which enters Janis Joplin territory and holds its ground. There are weak moments, but “Tom the Model” reaches for something grand in its collage of big band blowout, swinging strings and trilling backing singers. Billie Holliday rears her head once more in the sultry, smoky “Show,” and Nick Drake is referenced by name (on a song called “Drake”) and musical debt (on the understated “Spider Monkey,” which builds to an implied mainstream climax only to turn off the well-traveled road and close with frustrated, claustrophobic organ pedals). The vocals on “Resolve” are simply astounding in their virtuosity.
Hidden amid these occasionally brilliant songs, there are studio effects and trickery which — while nowhere near as astonishing and brash as Barrow’s contributions to Portishead — do feel more organic and subtle. Without the hip-hop scratch-fests, Bond movie fetishism and gaudy samples, it’s tempting to call Out of Season “Portishead Lite,” but this album is much better than that. Barrow’s audacious wizardry does indeed appear to be essential to the band, but that’s not the only way these players can play. Out of Season contains moments that will — quite simply — stop your heart.