Portishead formed in the city of Bristol, where a vibrant, multi-cultural music scene spawned trip-hop in the early 1990s. Trip-hop took the beats from hip hop, and slowed them down, adding textures and songs. Alongside Portishead, essentially the entire trip-hip scene originated in Bristol, with Massive Attack and Tricky also from the city.
The band took their name from a coastal town near Bristol and started as a partnership between vocalist Beth Gibbons and producer Geoff Barrow. Guitarist Adrian Utley contributed heavily to their 1994 debut Dummy and joined as an official member shortly afterwards. At the time of writing, Portishead had only released two further albums since Dummy, 1997’s Portishead and 2008’s Third; even though they’ve never disbanded, the band members have spent time exploring other projects.
Each of Portishead’s records has its own sound, but generally, they mix organic and inorganic textures; Gibbons’ lush vocals are infused with melancholy, and often recall classic blues singers of a bygone era. On their first two albums, the band employed hip hop beats and turntables, but layered other organic textures over the top, like Utley’s guitar.
Despite their limited output, they’re one of the more enduring acts from the 1990s – Geoff Barrow has said “I just wanted to make interesting music, proper songs with a proper life span and a decent place in people’s record collections.” Dummy is rightfully acknowledged as a classic, and their other two albums are also strong; their ability to update their signature sound for 2008’s Third was surprisingly impressive. I’ve also covered Beth Gibbons’ collaboration with Talk Talk bass player Paul Webb.
Portishead Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Dummy
Overlooked Gem: Out Of Season
Dummy wasn’t the first trip-hop album – Massive Attack’s Blue Lines pre-dates it by three years – but it bought its own angle on the genre. The trip-hop beats are accompanied by chilled textures, giving Dummy a vibe that’s somewhere between a film noir and classic jazz and soul. The production team of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley use samples lightly, like Isaac Hayes on ‘Strangers’, and handle most of the instruments themselves. The star of Dummy is vocalist Beth Gibbons, whose sultry, expressive voice gives the material emotional depth, a 1990s spin on a soul album.
There’s not a weak song, and each track has its own sonic world that fits impeccably into the overall mood of Dummy; there’s the ominous pulse of ‘Wandering Star’, the turntables of ‘Biscuit’, and the light strings and bass of ‘Glory Box’. The highlights are the theremin-infused opener ‘Mysterons’, and the gorgeous ‘It’s A Fire’, underpinned by a pretty Hammond Organ.
Dummy is a glorious example of the way that the exploratory nature of the 1990s opened up new musical avenues; a band using technology to synthesise ideas and arriving at something original and heartfelt.
Portishead is a darker album than the debut, with less organic textures. The group worked differently this time, often creating their own pieces of music to sample, and then working them up into songs. The band explained this as trying to differentiate themselves from the hordes of imitators that followed in the wake of Dummy. Significantly, Beth Gibbons’ voice is often rougher; her pure vocals on Dummy were gorgeous, but there’s a bite and sass in her vocals on Portishead where it sounds like she’s aiming for an Eartha Kitt vibe. Opening track ‘Cowboys’ is perhaps the most extreme example of the shift in sound; Gibbons spits out the lyrics in a way she didn’t on the debut, juxtaposed against scratching turntables and a dry rhythm.
‘All Mine’ was the first single, and it’s probably the most accessible piece on the album, like the theme for a temptress in a dark movie. ‘Over’ sets Gibbons’ vocal against Adrian Utley’s echoing guitar, before the propulsive rhythm sets in, while the lighter ‘Humming’ and its theremin would have fit comfortably onto Dummy.
It’s not as immediate as Dummy, but if you liked Portishead’s debut it’s worth spending time with this sophomore effort as well.
Portishead never officially broke up after 1997’s self-titled sophomore album, but Geoff Barrow struggled to find inspiration for a follow-up, and it took ten years for the sequel to arrive. The resulting album is very different in feel from its predecessors – Portishead abandon the trip-hop beats and cinematic feel that served them so well on their first two albums. Beth Gibbons’ voice is still at the forefront, but otherwise Third features a Portishead that’s updated for the 21st century with new rhythms and textures.
‘Silence’ is a foreboding opener, with a chilling introduction, and Gibbons’ vocal isn’t introduced until midway through the song. It’s easy to imagine a song like ‘Nylon Smile’ fitting on their previous albums, but overall there’s more diversity on Third than either of the previous Portishead albums. Most drastically, the brief ‘Deep Water’, is based around a ukulele and gospel-like backing vocals, while the self-explanatory rhythm of ‘Machine Gun’ was generated by running a drum machine through an organ.
Third is an improbably strong comeback album from a group that seemed like they were very much tied to a specific musical movement.
Out of Season – Beth Gibbon and Rustin’ Man
Out of Season is an interesting collaboration between two talented musicians who weren’t the principal driving forces behind their respective bands. Geoff Barrow has always been the leader of Portishead, while Rustin’ Man (Paul Webb) was the bass player for the Mark Hollis-led Talk Talk. Interesting, other supporting members from both bands play on this record – Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley and Talk Talk drummer Lee Harris. Gibbons and Webb met when Gibbons auditioned as a vocalist for Webb’s post-Talk Talk band O’Rang, but was unable to follow through when Portishead became successful.
The collaboration isn’t the post-rock album you’d expect from the pairing – it’s largely an acoustic jazz album, with some folk influences. Gibbons’ lyrics are even bleaker than usual; “Autumn leaves/Pretty as can be/Everyone can see/Everyone except me,” and Out Of Season has a quiet, desperate beauty. The most immediate piece is ‘Tom The Model’, with its punchy chorus underscored by brass, while ‘Romance’ brings to mind a jazz chanteuse like Ella Fitzgerald. But Out Of Season really shines on the acoustic, folk-flavoured pieces like ‘Sand River’ and ‘Drake’, where the pretty music is chilled by the despair in Gibbons’ lyrics and vocals.
Out Of Season doesn’t quite match up against the best albums from Talk Talk and Portishead, but it’s a unique and interesting album, showcasing two talented supporting players getting the chance to front their own project.
Ten Favourite Portishead Songs
It’s A Fire
We Carry On
Return to 1990s Album Reviews…
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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