My latest review

Portishead - Third

aren't what anyone would called prolific.

Third is, appropriately, their third album. But they've been together for almost 20 years, and this is their first album since 1997's eponymous Portishead. Myself, I've always liked what I've heard by the band, but I can't truthfully say I've ever soberly heard one of their first two albums in it's entirety. Most of my experience with the band, and I'll wager that many of our male readers will probably have similar experience, is linked inextricably with a shadowy female in their past. Or present. I hate to generalize, but that's just the facts, jack.

What I remember from Portishead is the dramatic, cinematic soundscapes built with tremolo, reverb, delayed guitar, and a very ethereal, almost fragile female voice layered overtop. Portishead have always been considered of the "Trip Hop" genre, although they themselves eschew this moniker. All those elements are present on the new album, but something is...different.

'Silence', the opening track, immediately announces that business is not as usual, with the upbeat and aggressive drum track. I had to double check to make sure I hadn't accidentally clicked on to some extra remix track tacked onto the end of the album. This track starts off great. The beat is a nice change of pace, and combined with the delayed guitar, it makes a really sinister groove. And then, inexplicably, it all stops. The beat disappears, all the noise is scaled back,
Beth Gibbons starts singing, and her voice sort of hangs out there in space. The quality of her voice just doesn't work with music this aggressive. It's still a cool track, but it went from 'epic' to 'just ok' in my mind, mainly due to the vocals. The guitar riff for the last minute of the song also seems to have been played on an out of tune guitar, and a sour note is hit repeatedly. I can only assume this is left in the mix intentionally, perhaps to add some more edge. If so, it is unnecessary, and doesn't have the desired effect. It just sounds amateurish.

The next two tracks ('Hunter', 'Nylon Smile') are much more familiar to the average listener. Vintage Portishead; quiet, and subdued. However, and this is where the band shines, please don't read "subdued" as "relaxing with a good book". Please read it as "tied to a wooden chair in a one bulb cement room, wondering where the hell you are". This is where Gibbons fragile voice is allowed to do its nasty business. Her pleasant voice always sounds just on the verge of breaking, like a whisper of some tragic secret, in the dark. The fourth track ('The Rip') also makes me think of
Stereolab, which I personally think was a band that hasn't been given its due as one of the progenitors of the whole trip hop movement, so it's nice to hear things come full circle.

And from there, the album strikes a nice balance of familiarity with innovation; the beautiful and orchestral juxtaposed with the angular and jarring.

Much of the album, particularly the more aggressive tunes, hearkens to older
Cocteau Twins, or even The Cure. The droning hooks that repeat throughout the entirety of many of the songs ('We Carry On') makes me think of industrial music, like Nitzer Ebb, or Depeche Mode on Construction Time Again ('Machine Gun'). The discordant guitars and keyboards makes me think of Radiohead's Kid A or Amnesiac. The good thing about this album is it seems to reference a lot of familiar things, but is original enough that you can never really put your finger on just what they're copping.

This is not a pleasant album. This is not what I would describe as "really good background music", which is how I would've described their previous work (in fact, I have had their previous worked described as exactly that by more than one of the aforementioned shadowy females of my past). This album is challenging. It is jarring. This album is possibly alienating, especially now that a lot of the people that loved them in 1997 will have matured, and their tastes perhaps will have mellowed. So, considering they liked a band that was pretty mellow already, this album could throw them into quite a tailspin.

But this album is a triumph. It took balls to release it. It would've been so easy to release an album that eased people back into the band after such a lengthy hiatus. That in itself is a middle finger worthy of any punk band you care to mention. This band grew, and doesn't care if you come along for the ride. It is fun to listen to, and one should pay attention. This album is not aging gracefully. It is telling you to fuck off with your pretensions, with your pigeonholing, with your expectations. It is telling you to plug in your headphones, and fasten your seat belts. Portishead is dead; long live Portishead!


Cool Tracks:

We Carry On

1 comment:

Ian C. said...

you get huge points from me for mentioning what is a not-so-mainstream DM album: Construction Time Again. Nice.

they are, with their third album, still my favourite band to kill myself too. i've sworn since the first that if i ever did myself in you'd find me with sour times looping in the back ground...over...and over...and over...and over...and over...and over...and over...and...over...