\\During the game changing music scene of the 90’s, Britain's Portishead created a sound as imaginative as it is genre defining. They blur lines left and right,often combining genres that you wouldn’t automatically think would work. As a band in their “third decade”, Portishead has been less than prolific. Three studio albums, one live album, and a few one-off singles are all we’ve seen over the band’s twenty plus year career. Having said that you can’t really fault them for taking their time to correctly present their vision, when the ultimate vision ends up being so thoughtful, solid, and beautiful. Today, we’re talking about their first album, the modern masterpiece known as “Dummy”
Let me first say that in a world full of unoriginal bands with no impressive ideas, Portishead manages to sit atop a mountain with a few other vastly important bands still making music that is years ahead of anything the mainstream audience might experience. I mention that because their first album “Dummy” is the album that started the upward mobility.
Released in the late summer of 1994, “Dummy” isn’t a typical album. It’s not a warm loving record. Instead, vocalist Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow & guitarist Adrian Utley took elements from the 30’s, mixed them with a new type of sound called “triphop.” From the opening of “Mysterons” you get the cold, harsh, but often calculated ambiance that the band created for us. An interesting tidbit about the band, before the recording of this album the band only consisted of Gibbons & Barlow, but after working well with Utley, he was brought on to be the third member, and that’s still the core lineup that the band uses today.
If you think about the music of the times, a few things come to mind. One, does this album sound even remotely close to any of the modern more well-known music being released at that time? Of course not, but that’s why unknown bands are sometimes the best. They can survive and create without the restrictions of big level record companies, and in this case, it helps to cement a great band’s legacy. In the climate of today;s music industry, bands like Portishead wouldn’t even get the big label treatment. It’s too much of a risk to the record company, at least in their eyes,
The second thought that occurred to me was what other now regarded classic alternative albums had come out that year. Nine Inch Nails “The Downward Spiral,” Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” and Tori Amos’ “Under the Pink” all were released in the same year. With all of those great albums, I’d be surprised if that didn’t help “Dummy” to get a little bit more attention than it would have gotten had it been released during a time where the thirst for “alternative” music wasn’t at an all time high.
One of the best things about this band is the skill they have to combine sounds and textures. Gibbons' voice is reminiscent of a cabaret singer, quietly vocalizing in a dark, smoky red-lit bar at two in the morning. The sultry, painful voice, combined with the precise use of a drum machine and synthesizer make the overall sound of the band impressive. It’s especially obvious on tracks like “It Could be Sweet,” and the track that follows, “Wandering Star.” Having purchased this album on vinyl, it’s really the way it was meant to be heard. The album on its own has a very warm quality to it, but on record it’s even more undeniable.
The wobbly but consistent beats on “Wandering Star” are probably one of the most electric beats on the whole album. The album has so many layers to it that it’s hard to focus on one at a time, but that’s what great bands do in a way that makes the music seamless and effortless when played for avid listeners. They add layers that might not work on their own, but together, it’s radiant and glorious. Most great bands are good at this gentle art, and Portishead is among those great activators of sound.
One of the cinematic, epic songs on the whole album is “It’s a Fire.” The symphonic beginning quickly dissolves and gives way to the quiet of a piano behind Beth’s voice, until the other beats slowly bleed through, forcing you to acknowledge them. Her voice here is one of the more lovely parts of the whole album, and it’s also one of the few parts where you get a hint of positivity. Even with a hint of optimism, that’s not implying this is a happy record.
One of the saddest, albeit most beautiful songs on the albums, “Roads” is the perfect foundation for the rest of the band’s work. It’s not only the best song on the album, but it’s my favorite song by the band. The song speaks to the listener from a solitary, desperate place. I can relate to this position of the speaker so much because sometimes in life you feel like you’re alone, and without a net to save you.
The imagery set forth here is unbelievably powerful, and the music does just as much for the overall feel of the song than the vocals do, if not more. If it were up to me, this song would be put in a time capsule for the future children of earth to find two thousand years from now, if we even last that long. The song both begins and ends with a warm fuzz of a beat coming in and out. I’m not sure what instrument is being used to bring it to fruition, but it works wonderfully to propel the song to its ultimate apex.
From the first time I was ever exposed to this album when I first heard the single “Sour Times,” to the years working my way through this collection of songs, so many of them have spoken to me in a personal, life-affirming way. Even songs that have a sinister undertone like “Biscuit” still work even twenty years after the album was released. That’s how you can tell a band knows what they’re doing. The music has only intensified in the time since it was unleashed. Album closer, and overall great song “Glory Box” is one of the better reminders of this.
Like much of the rest of the album, “Glory Box” presents imagery that is both epic and mythological, while juxtaposing a quiet burlesque feel that is both haunting and a throwback to the times of the roaring twenties. Tell me you can’t see that in this world? Gibbons voice is perhaps at it’s best on this track, and the emotion pouring out of her is at the same time defiant and dependent on whoever she is talking to. It’s the perfect song to conclude this monster of an album, and it helps to permanently claim the trio’s spot among great bands.
When the third album, “Third” came out, it was evocative of everything they had done previously, and it still worked. They had taken the basic idea experimented with on “Dummy” and had refined it and made it new and fresh. That’s what this band does. They evolve and change but they remain uniquely brilliant. Eventually they’ll make a fourth proper studio record, and when they do, I have no doubt it will be as important and interesting as the other three albums currently making up their discography. Thanks for reading
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Landon Murray is a New Orleans native, who thrives on painting the world he interprets through the useful forms of all types of art he feels connected to. He's seen over 1000 bands, and had loved mostly every minute of it. He has an amazing 10 year old dog, and is loving life.
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