High Contrast: The Challenges and Pleasures of Portishead’s Third
While a glance at the calendar reveals the truth, it doesn’t really seem that it was 14 years ago when Portishead released their debut full-length Dummy. But 14 years ago it was, and I remember well the first time I heard the disc and had my ears opened.
I was hanging with Jeff F., who’s been mentioned here a few times before. As I noted on at least one occasion, he’s one of the people I know who has consistently been able to introduce me to music, knowing exactly which buttons to push or when I’m in need of a nudge. On that particular evening, shortly after he moved to NYC to do an MFA in theater (I was halfway through my music Ph.D. at the time), we sat down in his living room to have martinis (always up with a twist) made with the then newly introduced Skyy vodka and to share the things that had been tickling our ears. The first recording he played, about which I might have to write at a later point, was Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball. As I resist the urge to say why I found (and still find) that recording so compelling, I realize I’m going to have to write about it—so I’ll defer characterizing it for another time.
The second recording we auditioned that evening, Portishead’s debut, was the real kicker. Sure, I was aware of something journalists had dubbed “trip-hop” and the importance of Massive Attack in creating/popularizing it as the latest sound to emerge from Bristol, one that could sit proudly alongside the work done by the Pop Group in the late 1970s. While the first U.S. single, “Sour Times,” was nearly ubiquitous on the airwaves and MTV’s 120 Minutes (and deserved to be played avidly and often), there were other tracks on the recording that were equally brilliant. Album closer “Glory Box” was one of my instant favorites, as was the opener “Mysterons.” The two couldn’t have been more different. Where the former was an almost boozy meditation on the difficulty of finding and holding onto love, the latter, as its title might indicate, was all sci-fi, Morricone-like groovy with prominent Theremin interludes (produced on a Moog synthesizer) and flammy snare drum rolls giving it an edgy texture. It was a great way to open an album.
Among the other great tracks are my two favorites: “It Could Be Sweet” and “Roads.” In the first of them, the patented Portishead mix has been perfectly realized: elements drawn from film music, hip-hop, R&B, jazz and elsewhere contribute to a subtle brew. That track begins with a drum loop and a viscerally amazing, sub-woofer-busting synth bass line. It’s yet another song about love, one that reminds listeners that “you don’t get something for nothing” and that “the thoughts we try to deny / take a toll upon our lives.” And while I’ve recently decried musicians who insert (or leave in) a sigh at a song’s beginning or end (yes, Eclecticism folks, I’m talking about Jeff Buckley), the one that we hear from singer Beth Gibbons at 3:25 sounds fitting rather than melodramatic. The real stopper for me is the second of the songs. The overdriven and tremeloed electric piano intro always makes me shiver, and the string arrangement (starting at 1:40) is gorgeous and perfect. The drum pattern, which enters around 0:50, is understated but just the right thing for the song, while the wah-wah guitar—which enters with the strings—amplifies the drama. Even if some of the tension is released with the bass solo (approximately at 3:20), things really only find (partial) resolution as the instruments drop away at the end. First to go are the strings, followed by the bass and the guitar. Voice, drums and keys chime on, till the drums recede, followed by the voice, leaving only a final, trembling piano chord.
That recording set a high bar, one that I wasn’t sure their follow-up could match. When it finally dropped in 1997, I was blown away … again. The sources for the sampled material eluded me on my first listen. I later learned why when I read an article in a long-misplaced issue of the Tower Records magazine Pulse. The success of the first record allowed the group a larger budget for the second effort, but rather than spend the money on clearances, they opted for something much more labor-intensive: they recorded original material, had it pressed to vinyl, distressed the resultant objects and then sampled them(!) for use on the final recording. I won’t belabor what I thought was brilliant about the recording beyond one observation. I first listened to the album in my car on the way home from the office. And something funny happened the first time I heard the sixth track, “Humming.” It opened with a Moog/Theremin playing to the accompaniment of what sounded like an orchestra tuning up. Drums and bass soon entered and took things up a level. But when I heard Beth Gibbons sing the first lines of the song—Closer / No hesitation / Give me / All that you have—I responded out loud when she said/sang “give me,” saying “What do you want me to give you, baby?” There are some ways in which that second album didn’t have the weighty impact of its predecessor, but it was far from disappointing.
In fairly rapid order—that is, the following year—they released a third recording—the oh-so-cleverly titled Roseland NYC Live—which was recorded live at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City with an orchestra and released on CD as well as VHS and DVD. It was another bracing release, most notable perhaps for two things. One, it revealed that the band was more than capable of producing the same chills in a live setting that they could on tape. Two, it made abundantly clear just how much other fans adored “Roads”: listen to the ecstatic cheers from the audience just as that first electric piano chord is played about 8 seconds into this YouTube clip from the show. Seeing and hearing that when I bought the video was both validating and bittersweet. On one hand, I realized my likes were similar to those of other Portishead fans. On the other, I was pissed at myself for not going: in the summer of 1997 on the night the recording was made, I was squatting in New Haven and thought, rather than take the train down, I should concentrate on my dissertation revisions. Sigh.
After that release, Portishead seemed to disappear. Rumors would always swirl that they were back in the studio or that they had disbanded. But they never were anything more than rumors. There was even a great deal of buzz a few years ago about a new recording by them, that turned out, if I recall correctly, to be some bootleg that didn’t really feature them at all. During their hiatus, the band members did contribute their skills to other projects. Most notably, Beth Gibbons released a below-the-radar recording with one “Rustin Man” (Paul Webb from Talk Talk) called Out of Season in 2002. If you’re at all a fan of her voice, it’s worth several listens. (Just be warned: it is not a Portishead release in the slightest.)
As fans like me started to come to terms with the idea that the group might not ever release another recording (in the same way that they won’t believe My Bloody Valentine’s follow-up to Loveless will materialize until they see the disc in their hands), news came in 2005 that the band were finally working on new music. The buzz grew more profound when the group posted two tracks to their MySpace page in 2006. Then came another long wait.
Now, though, the wait is over. Actually, it has been since April when I bought the also cleverly titled Third. I’ll cut to the chase and say that the tracks they’ve included more than justify the wait. The opening track, “Silence,” has that sinister, noirish sound that seems to be the band’s trademark. It also seems paradoxically to be one example of something that one of the bandmembers said was one of their goals with the recording: to create music that couldn’t be used for dinner parties or relaxation therapy. Other tracks that seem to be anti-chillout music include “Machine Gun,” “We Carry On” and “Plastic.” On the first of the three, I love the way the drum samples around 2:40 (courtesy of a Fairlight CMI?) recall those that were a hallmark of the Art of Noise a couple of decades ago (see this post for a discussion of AoN’s debut release). And the song’s sonic palette gets even stranger shortly after the three-minute mark. For its part, “Plastic” is one of those tracks I love for all of its weirdo samples—including dub-style drum fills—and the intense sense of menace and disquiet in it. Still, if keeping things edgy is really what the group had in mind, the album’s second track, “Hunter,” takes us back at least briefly into a familiar spooky and romantic space. But there are noodly synth and abrasive guitar interludes between the verses to provide jarring contrast. And on it goes. Perhaps the oddest inclusion is “Deep Water.” It sounds like some weird home recording from the 1930s (yes, I know very few people could do that then) with Gibbons singing, sometimes out-of-tune like a child, accompanied by a ukulele and some strange-sounding male backup singers.
In the end, it might be best to describe Third as a study in contrasts—from track to track and from moment to moment. Throughout the album, the group’s principal members reveal the subtle strides they’ve made in songcraft and production. At the same time, however, they somehow manage both to expand their sonic resources and to maintain a connection to what they’ve done in the past. It’s hard to ask for, let alone get, that much from any artist. Download it if you dare, but a recording this good deserves to be heard exactly as the artists released it and preferably through a set of good, widely spaced speakers…