Dummy (Go Beat ‘94) Rating: A
Much like Loveless is the ultimate "shoegazer" album and Slanted and Enchanted is the quintessential "lo-fi" indie rock album, Dummy is the definitive “trip-hop” album, a Bristol-based style that was first introduced on Massive Attack's Blue Lines and which gained further popularity and credibility with Tricky’s excellent Maxinquaye. Geoff Barrow is Portishead’s musical mastermind, a studio/sampling wizard who deftly and ingeniously mixes together what sounds like strange spy film effects with spare hip-hop beats, Ennio Morricone-styled Spaghetti western guitar (supplied by Adrian Utley), haunting Hammond organ, and silken string arrangements. The end result is a film noir-ish atmosphere that brings to mind cold, dimly lit lounges filled with smoke and broken dreams. Siren Beth Gibbons lends her tattered voice to these eleven moving songs (including the minor hit “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)”), and her edgy, eerie vocals are up front and center in leading the band's delectably depressing soundscapes. Quite simply, Ms. Gibbons sounds like the saddest girl in the world, and believable lines like “nobody loves me…” and “this loneliness just won’t leave me alone” attest to her shattered worldview. Most of these languidly paced songs share a similarly shadowy vibe and contain surprisingly catchy grooves, as Portishead create dark nights of the soul where romance and lady luck have turned irredeemably sour (“Sour Times,” indeed). In addition to some highly original songs, only a couple of which fail to impress, the intentionally scratchy sound (giving the impression of a record rather than a compact disc) was a brilliant production masterstroke that made this album a one of a kind experience - at least until Portishead, that is. “Mysterons,” “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me),” “It Could Be Sweet,” “It’s a Fire,” “Roads,” and “Glory Box” are the highlights, but to pluck individual songs from such a self-contained package is to miss the point. Once experienced in its entirety, the dramatic sound world introduced on Dummy is impossible to forget.
Portishead (Go Beat ‘97) Rating: A-
Despite Barrow’s prolonged bout with writer’s block and the fact that many bands had since sought to plunder elements from the band’s terrific debut album, Portishead managed to stay relevant and avoid the sophomore slump on Portishead, one of 1997’s most highly anticipated and best albums. Although less melodic and memorable than Dummy, and lacking any singles as brilliant as “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)” or "Glory Box," Portishead is nevertheless a similarly singular work that is even spookier than its predecessor. Beth Gibbons’ quivering voice sounds on the verge of collapse, and her often electronically manipulated vocals show off extreme affectations while angrily delivering bitter, heavy-hearted, sometimes downright threatening lyrics. For his part, Barrow is typically resourceful, again supplying scratchy atmospherics and dramatic effects that are perfect for dimly lit rooms with a stiff drink as your lone, comforting companion. Addictively depressing and relentlessly morose, Portishead’s richly jagged torch songs don’t flow quite as smoothly as Dummy’s (comparisons are inevitable), but the album still leaves a lasting impression, particularly Gibbons’ tortured emotives, which play an even more pronounced role than previously. Sometimes she’s a tad too over the top, though, causing Portishead to occasionally veer uncomfortably close to self-parody, but far more often than not the band strikes a perfectly hypnotic balance. In short, Portishead the band remain one-of-a-kind leaders of this type of music, and Portishead the album was well worth the long wait.
Roseland NYC Live (Go Beat ‘98) Rating: A-
The appearance of this live album after only two studio albums seemed a bit premature, and at least with regards to most of the Portishead songs it doesn't add all that much beyond what the studio albums offered aside from the shock value that they can pull these songs off so well in a live setting. Regardless of whether or not its release was entirely necessary, this album is still a damn good listen just the same (and the DVD is even better than the cd). Having the huge New York Philharmonic Orchestra at their disposal helped, of course, and the 11-track song selection can't be argued with too strenuously, though I would've preferred more than five songs from Dummy (such as "It Could Be Sweet," "Wandering Star," and "It's a Fire"), as well as more songs in general (rare is it that I complain about a modern album being too short!). Still, Beth Gibbons sounds great - the sound quality in general is terrific - and the strings really do enrich the material. The album begins with a bang by introducing my two favorite Portishead songs, "Humming and "Cowboys" (the band aren't much for long song titles), and that album's "Half Day Closing" is another highlight, being even more over the top and powerful than its studio counterpart. Unsurprisingly, however, it's the songs from Dummy, some creatively re-imagined, that steal the show. In particular, Adrian Utley shines on a stellar "Glory Box," "Sour Times" has a reworked melody that's both more dirge-like and more rocking (the hard-hitting climax is phenomenal), and "Roads" easily eclipses the Dummy version and provides the concert's most riveting moment (the long, final "how can it feel this wrong" is goosebump inducing), with help from a captivated audience. "Strangers" is also very good as its strings add an epic presence, though it seems somewhat anti-climactic after "Roads," and my minor complaint about this album on the whole is that it doesn't really offer that much new about the band. That said, Roseland NYC Live (often referred to as PNYC) does reinforce the band's greatness (greatness not being a word I that use lightly or for too many modern day bands but I feel that such a claim is earned here).
Third (Island ‘08) Rating: A-
And I thought Portishead was a long time coming! This time there was an astounding 11-year gap between studio albums, with nary an explanation as to why from this press shy combo. As with the last time, Third was largely worth the long wait, even if it's less easily entered and less accessible than even Portishead (and remember that was the band's "difficult" second album), and is therefore easy to admire but difficult to love or even enjoy at times. There are many similarities to previous albums, for starters there are 11 songs and most of the song titles are only one or two words. Elements such as Spaghetti western guitars and church organ are still present, but the band's soundscapes feature more electronics and are more guitar-centric (Utley again), while Barrow ditches the crackly turntable scratching that was such a large part of their early efforts. Still, the band's uniquely dark vision remains, a fact that's instantly apparent on "Silence," which starts instrumentally for a couple of minutes before slowing down for the entrance of Gibbons, who sounds as fragile, weary, and wounded as ever ("Tempted in our minds, tormented inside life, wounded and afraid, inside my head"). Another obvious highlight is "The Rip," which features several brilliant buildups, but on the whole individual tracks don't really stand out at first. Don't get me wrong, "Hunter" sounds like classic Portishead only without the turntable scratches, "Nylon Smile" has enticing tribal beats and showcases the band at their atmospheric best, the menacingly groove-intensive "We Carry On" and the almost industrial "Machine Gun" are notable for their intense, unsettling moods and heavy reliance on electronics, and "Deep Water" is a charmingly folksy if disappointingly brief change of pace from a band not exactly known for their diversity. However, it's the desolate, claustrophobic overall mood that is this album's primary selling point more so than individual songs. As per usual, Gibbons is a riveting performer, though her vocals are perhaps a bit less prominent than in the past, and on the whole Third was a welcome return from a band who I wasn't sure if I'd ever hear from again. That said, much of this album isn't exactly easily listening and I'd still recommend starting with Dummy if you're new to the band.