With eerie, spare backing tracks and emotionally
wrenching vocals, Portishead play music for when the ecstasy wears
off and the tingle becomes a chill. It's dance noir for those
too world-weary to move their feet. The British group's haunting
debut album, Dummy has already caused a sensation at home, where
it has tapped into England's bleak mood. And with America entering
the Gingrich era, when Hope is nothing but a town in Arkansas,
Portishead's languorous chronicles of estrangement - such as "Sour
Times (Nobody Loves Me)," which is now an MTV Buzz Clip -
are striking a chord here as well
Portishead were born three and a half years ago in a suitably depressing
place: the Bristol, England, unemployment office. Geoff Barrow,
23, who produces the backing tracks, and vocalist Beth Gibbons,
30, who writes the melodies and lyrics, both wanted to pursue music
careers, but they didn't seem to have much else in common.
"We agreed to differ," says Gibbons diplomatically of
their musical tastes. Barrow liked Gravediggaz and the soundtracks
of John Barry (Goldfinger), Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and
the Ugly) and Russ Meyer films. Gibbons looked askance at sequencers
and once sang Janis Joplin and Fleetwood Mac songs in a cover band.
Yet it turned out Gibbons and Barrow did share one similarity: "I
like emotionally disturbing songs," says Barrow, who describes
one song Gibbons played for him as "kind of nasty and weird."
Portishead are jokingly named after the dreary home-town from which
Barrow escaped. "It's a place where the local newspaper headline
is Vera's birthday or the flower show," he says. "It looks
really pretty and twee, but it's actually quite horrible."
At 17, Barrow started commuting to nearby Bristol, where he became
a studio Wunder-kind working on Neneh Cherry's Homebrew.
Gibbons grew up in Devon, England, where, she says, 'you just get
married and have kids." When she simultaneously broke up with
her boyfriend and left her job at a dock-making company, Gibbons
mustered up the courage to leave town and try singing professionally.
In London she hooked up with Paul Webb of Talk Talk, but that and
subsequent collaborations didn't pan out. While her lyrics and plaintive
cigarettes-and-black-coffee vocals reflect the series of failed
relationships and dead-end career moves that led her to Bristol,
her pessimism is so unrelenting that some have speculated she must
have suffered some horrendous trauma.
"I wasn't sexually abused," Gibbons says, dispensing with
the usual explanation. "I have divorced parents, which didn't
help, but I don't like it when I blame things on my parents."
Barrow has never asked Gibbons why her lyrics are so melancholy
and thinks it's a subject "best left alone."
Now, Barrow and Gibbons are concentrating
on making their second album and building their own studio. The
success of Dummy and a new relationship have Gibbons sounding
almost optimistic "I'm happy now," she says. "Relatively
happy. Sort of."