Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Album Review: Portishead - Third

This was the long-awaited third album from Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley, who as Portishead created one of the key albums of the mid-90s in Dummy. Unfortunately its ‘trip-hop’ sound became the soundtrack to ‘cool’ dinner parties, ‘helped’ (is that enough inverted commas?) in no small way by the BBC TV series This Life.

I saw Beth Gibbons touring in 2003, and I must admit she was a little precious, shutting the bar during the performance, which had the effect of trying the audience’s patience, only thinking of when would the gig end and where would they go afterwards?!

How relevant would Portishead prove to be, 14 years on from Dummy in 2008? Opening track Silence starts with some disembodied voice speaking in Spanish (I think) before a cacophony of sound is unleashed, dispelling any preconceptions that this was to be anything like Dummy. It’s a skittering, claustrophobic, dark block of sound which sets the tone for the album. Two minutes later Gibbons’ tortured voice enters the mix, battling against eerie keyboards, stabs of distorted guitar and insistent percussion. It’s a breathtaking track and anything but ‘chill-out’, with a forlorn guitar joining the maelstrom before it ends abruptly.

Hunter is a sort-of torch song, reminiscent of Beth Gibbons’ Out of Season album, and on more conventional ground for older fans of Portishead, though it’s interrupted by sound effects searing through intermittently which conjure up a plane taking off. All the while Gibbons sounds as anguished as ever, and strangely enough it works beautifully.

Nylon Smile is not quite as strong as the opening 2 tracks, consisting mainly of pulsing electronica, but The Rip is a highly engaging lament built around a guitar figure which evolves into a keyboard progression. Gibbons sings “White horses, they will take me away,” and it sounds kind of menacing till the keyboards take over the track, concluding it pleasingly.

Plastic features what sounds like a machine rotating and stop-start rhythms, but then We Carry On takes the pace up several notches, insistent electronica with a pounding beat punctuated by some almost Sonic Youth-ish guitar riffs and effects. It’s an alarming track, almost military with its relentless march, and light years away from Dummy. I can only imagine what it’s like live.

Deep Water which follows is totally jarring. For one thing it’s only a minute and a half long and sounds a whole lot quieter than anything else on the album. It features Beth Gibbons voice and what might be a ukulele, and she’s joined by a kind of doo-wop chorus, making it sound like a relic from the early part of the last century.

Blowing this out of the water is the completely bonkers Machine Gun, which has drums and keyboards combining to produce a machine-gun-like rhythm with Gibbons’ voice bolted on and air raid siren-like keyboards. It’s probably the hardest track to get into and I’m not sure it entirely works, though it’s interesting nonetheless.

Small sounds like a quieter, downbeat track until keyboards crash in after two and a half minutes as the song grimly lurches along. Magic Doors ominously follows, before the closing Threads, which is maybe a little reminiscent of the better tracks from Dummy where Beth Gibbons sings her little heart out about how she’s “always so unsure”. The whole thing ends with more air-raid siren style keyboards.

I couldn’t listen to this album at first. I put it away and revisited again later. So glad I did. Forget ‘trip-hop’, this album is wonderfully inventive, and if anything the band are closer to Radiohead circa Kid A. It’s a thing of wonder.