ON THE RECORD / Portishead Progresses By Dipping Into the Past
Newsday, October 12, 1997, pp D33.
FOLLOWING UP A successful album is rarely easy. When that album
is your first and launched a whole new sound, the task becomes
For Portishead, whose 1994 debut "Dummy" marked the
breakthrough of "trip-hop" - a subgenre of languid break-beats
and dub reggae studio techniques usually set to female vocals
- the pressure provoked a crisis. While acts such as Olive and
Sneaker Pimps capitalized on the band's absence, Portishead hit
a creative brick wall, scrapping 18 months' work and starting
Fortunately, the sophomore album since recorded delivers on all
fronts. It's unmistakably the sound of Portishead, so it is clearly
a progression. Founder Geoff Barrow and his studio cohorts Dave
McDonald and Adrian Utley realized you sometimes have to go forward
to go backward. Determined to re-create beloved sounds of the
past without merely sampling them, they recorded their own drum
loops, orchestral arrangements, keyboard motifs and even vocals,
pressed them on to vinyl, physically dirtied the records, then
reintroduced the now heavily scratched music back into the mix.
The result is a delicately mutated hip-hop film noir. Rarely
have analog and digital technologies been better married.
None of this meticulous doctoring would matter without enigmatic
singer Beth Gibbons, whose beautifully haunting delivery made
"Dummy" so remarkable. On "Portishead" she
is more vampish and moody, sinisterly like Eartha Kitt on "Cowboys,"
emitting a lengthy, high-pitched scream to get her message across
on "Half Day Closing."
That message proves less elastic than her vocal range. "We
suffer every day, what is it for?" she asks on "Only
You." "This uncertainty is taking me over," she
complains on "Over." Portishead willingly dives into
the darker depths of the human soul, but with Gibbons contributing
such raw emotion the finished result is more a cleansing than
Tony Fletcher is a free-lance writer