Chandler, Arizona, United States

There's an old saying. If you don't want someone to join a crowd, you ask them, "If everyone were jumping off of a cliff, would you?" Well, I have. So my answer would be "Yes". True story.
Profile continued . . .

Review of Portishead, Third

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

this entry brought to you by portishead, "magic doors"

I was first introduced to Portishead with their second, self-titled album, and it was something that I instantly attached to. At the time I'd never heard trip-hop, and this album was like nothing else I'd ever heard in my life. Even after familiarizing myself with the genre in general, the album stuck out like a sore thumb-- there wasn't anything like it at all, and there really hasn't been during the past 11 years since it came out. But it was intoxicating, the kind of music that seemed to immediately fulfill a place in me that I wasn't aware was there. I recognized that Portishead were probably a challenging band-- compared to anything in the mainstream they were undoubtedly challenging, but in terms of my ears, it was an instant match. Why in the hell wasn't everybody in the world listening to Portishead?

I became very dismayed as I evangelized the band to people I knew, who often reacted with screwed up expressions and a confused utterance of "This is weird," after a moment of listening. I found through several tries that people who liked Portishead were usually like me-- it was the kind of thing that you instantly found to be the most gorgeous thing in the world, or you found it weird and uninviting.

Yet if Third were my first exposure to the band, I would probably fit into the second camp. Which, honestly, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Third is an uninviting record, with almost a total lack of choruses you could sing along to, untraditional song structures (even by Portishead standards; on the album's second song, "Hunter" for example, there are intervals of ascending bleeps which would seem to signal a transition to a chorus, yet no chorus comes; the drums build toward the end of the song as if signaling a break down, yet no breakdown comes ), and Beth Gibbons' gorgeous, swooning voice (Gibbons is my all-time favorite singer; her voice turns me into mush) is now softer and tired, laid in the mix further back than before; she sounds almost ghostly here. The samples that were sprinkled in their previous two records, judiciously on Dummy, sparingly but effectively on their self-titled, are completely absent here, and studio whiz Geoff Barrow never gets behind the decks for some record scratching, previously a major source of atmosphere. Adrian Utley's guitar was never especially elaborate in Portishead's music, but seems even more stripped down-- there's no soloing on this record whatsoever-- even if there's much more of it than before. Third is anxious, agitated, and erratic. It's a weird record. And while it's not as good as their second album, it's also brilliant.

While you would probably be inclined to describe Portishead's music as "gloomy", their self titled album was more than just that-- it had highs and lows, moments in between, but most importantly there was more than just "gloom". On that album's opener, "Cowboys", Beth sounded genuinely pissy; the gorgeous horn- filled "All Mine" was one of the most uplifting, glorious songs ever recorded; on "Half Day Closing", she even sounded somewhat sardonic. Third, on the other hand, is gloomy and haunting through and through, but doesn't have peaks and valleys-- it sounds uneasy, like the band knows there's going to be a massive earthquake within days and the rest of us don't. Yet lyrically, Beth doesn't pull a Thom Yorke and talk about upcoming ice ages or worry about robots taking over. As always, she sounds lonely and frail-- intensely so, if there can be such a term as "intensely frail". It's the music itself, which Beth's voice is merely an extension of this time rather than the lead as had previously been the case, that is claustrophobic and frightened. The album's first single, "Machine Gun" consists entirely of a relentlessly hammering, staccato drumbeat and Beth's croon, until it is joined by a synth line while the beat begins warping and bending around. It is a genuinely menacing song, and unlike the first time I heard "Sour Times" or "Only You", the first respective singles off the previous two albums, it's not the kind of song you're expected to like the first time through. "We Carry On" has a drilling keyboard note that sounds like a migraine headache until Adrian Utley comes in with his sweeping guitar riff, the whole thing driven by the pounding of almost war-like bass drums. Towards the end of the album, "Small", the longest song here, starts off like a haunting but simple enough song with low-key guitar and Beth's lonely voice, that turns into an almost David Lynchian horror with an erupting, stabbing organ, Utley making such malicious use of delay n his guitar it sounds like it's straining as its run through a blender. The album ends with the stunning "Threads", which climaxes with Gibbons' voice, singing "I'm always so unsure", with the drums throttling, the song melting into an ominous, pulsing drone that repeats until the CD finally stops.

Though gloomy through and through, Third isn't unrelentingly bleak, in fact, there are some unexpected light spots here that keep your head above water; one such song, "Deep Water", is a ukulele-plucked sea chanty (!) where Gibbons sings quietly about trying to weather the storm, while the boys in the band mutedly, sleepily sing along. "The Rip" sounds like a lullaby with its simple, plucked guitar strings, until they are joined by a warm, embracing keyboard. In the last quarter of the the record is "Magic Doors", and while almost every song on the record has live drums, here we have a swinging rock drum beat complete with cowbell, making you think for a moment that there might be an actual rock song, except as Beth sings like a lost angel, sorrowful bass and swelling piano pull the listener into a mournfully jazzy direction. Similarly, there's "Nylon Smile", my favorite song here, that finds Beth desperately, yearningly crooning "I don't know what I've done to deserve you/ And I don't know what I'll do without you" while a thumping bassline and steady, knock of a drum beat drive the song.

As I said before, if this had been my first exposure to the band, I wouldn't have latched onto it like I did when I first heard their self-titled album. This isn't to say, however, that I wouldn't have liked it. I would've thought it was weird, but fascinating, and I would be anxious for my next chance to dig my teeth into it. Just as 10 years ago there was no one making music quite like that, the same holds true 10 years later. There's no one in music, especially not in the genre that's become known as "trip-hop" (a term which, naturally, the band attests to hating) making anything that sounds even remotely like this. There are bands that are making music this challenging, there are bands making music this stark, there are bands making music this gloomy. But the way Portishead so deftly and organically combines all these elements into something so compelling and ultimately listenable is deeply satisfying. I don't think Third is as good a record as their previous one. But as a resurrection after nearly a decade of complete dormancy, it is exactly what it needed to be: nothing like anything else.


with love from CRS @ 6:17 AM 


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