If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Portishead
should be sporting Sting-sized egos by now. In the three years
since the release of their debut, Dummy, Geoff Barrow and Beth
Gibbons' combination of downtempo beats and melancholic vocals
has been the most co-opted formula since Kurt Cobain taught everyone
to whisper their verses and scream their choruses.
Following this string of pale imitators (Morcheeba, Moloko, Lamb,
and-the Bush of trip-hop-Sneaker Pimps) Portishead finds the Bristol,
England duo returning triumphant and miserable.
If, as someone said, Dummy was music for a dinner party, then
Portishead is music for your Last Meal. On tracks like "Elysium,"
Geoff Barrow's eerie synth lines and spare beats evoke the same
menace as Wu-Tang producer RZA's foreboding soundscapes. From
the horror movie sound effects that introduce "Humming"
to the funereal organs and cackling vocals of "Seven Months,"
Portishead is creepier than a trip to the SAE laundry room.
Apparently, nobody still loves Beth Gibbons and she's not afraid
to tell us about it. Her voice is so often distorted on this album
that on the rare occasion that it is allowed to stand alone, its
haunting beauty is all the more affecting. This shines through
on "Undenied" where Gibbons allows herself to sound
as vulnerable as a certain yodelling Alaskan (this is the type
of sad love song Jewel would write if she hadn't been home-schooled).
Portishead may not sound as revolutionary as Dummy, but Portishead
have certainly earned the right to spend their second album perfecting
a sound so many others try to imitate. Portishead should prove
to be the benchmark of a genre the band practically invented-it
doesn't tamper with the winning formula, but proves Barrow and
Gibbons the masters of it.