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What I’m listening to this week: Portishead

June 16, 2009

Third – 2008

Portishead are absolute masters of their genre – and that’s if you can even pigeonhole them into a current genre.  Over a decade ago, Portishead was a crucial and successful part of the trip-hop movement, most active in the UK.  The band basically disbanded after only two albums, unsatisfied with the attention they received and unwilling to make public appearances.  The members of Portishead, Adrian Utley, Geoff Barrow, and Beth Gibbons, worked on solo projects until 2005, when they reunited on stage for a Tsunami Benefit Concert and announced that they were working on a new album.  The result of those efforts is Third.

Despite the 10-year gap since the album Portishead, as soon as Third‘s opening track “Silence” begins, it’s clear that the band hasn’t lost its edge.  One of the most alluring things about the group is how they manage to infuse so much raw emotion into each track, utilizing perhaps their most valuable asset – Gibbons’ pure, sorrowful voice – but also priming it with unique and powerful electronic sound.  They’re not afraid to record quietly vexing songs or to full-on freak you out, and that’s part of what makes them independent of genre.  “Silence” is a perfect example: it’s two minutes of crawling, unsettling tones until you hear Gibbons’ fragile vocals break in with the words, “Tempted in our minds/Tormented in silence/Wounded, I’m afraid inside my head/Falling through changes”; then the song picks up urgency with rattling drums until it abruptly ends mid-beat.

“Hunter” is probably the most reminiscent of the classic trip-hop style of the band’s earlier work.  The verses are delicately airy, while the music itself almost acts as a chorus, disturbing and intense synth sounds repeating throughout.  “Nylon Smile” pairs Gibbons’ tortured, struggled vocals with a winding, hypnotic drum beat that is almost Middle-Eastern, and again ends abruptly.  This time it’s with Gibbons singing with a desperation in her voice that makes the last lines of the song sound like an unanswered question, and it’s positively captivating.

“Plastic” indulges in the disturbing qualities of Portishead’s music and captures them all to dramatic effect.  There’s a noise that sounds like a plate spinning on a table, amplified, deep and low irregular drum beats, distant cymbal crashes, and Gibbons’ high-pitch searing vocals.  “Plastic” gives way into the just-as-anxious, only even more tense, six-minute long “We Carry On”, which sounds like it could accompany the feeling you get sitting in the car during rush hour on a particularly bad day.  That is countered by the lovely and calm “Deep Water”, which plays like an old, slow folk song, but then “Machine Gun” ratchets up the relentlessness again with trance-inducing drum machines.

The fact that Portishead can start songs in such an exquisitely haunting way and then seamlessly incorporate so many elements that it ends up being something else entirely (such as on “Small”) is one of the many fascinating things about this band.  Or like “Magic Doors” which is almost radio-ready, save for the twisted horn solo in the middle, and then there’s the last track, “Threads”, which is so completely seductive that when it blows up, it’s unnerving, especially the last 45 seconds.

Third, like both other Portishead albums, is a lot to take in.  But just like those albums, and maybe even more so, it’s ultimately fulfilling on many different levels.

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