The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

The Spotlight: "Portishead" by Portishead

2 min read


What it is:

The second (and so far last) album by British trip-hop/chill-out duo Portishead.

Why you should care:

Named after a suburb of Bristol, England, Portishead is one of the three key artists from the early ‘90s electronic scene known as “trip-hop” (the other two are pioneers Massive Attack and Tricky). While the others focused on reggae and hip-hop for the source of inspiration, Portishead took up spy film music as their source. This is most apparent in both the vocals of Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrows’ arrangements and sample choices.
Formed in 1991, Portishead made their debut in 1994 with Dummy. This release, which quickly distinguished the group from the rest of their Bristol peers, is often the album critics highlight as the best work they have done. While all of the focus goes towards Dummy (which I also recommend), my personal opinion leads me to say that the oft-neglected follow-up is superior.
This 1997 release works upon the formula created in Dummy but also amplifies it to something darker. You still hear the influence from film composers like John Barry and Lalo Schifrin and Beth Gibbons retains an expressive range in her singing, but it all sounds more sinister, direr. Barrows, who is a multi-instrumentalist, now chose to prerecord the samples used in this album himself (Dummy used samples from others’ works). The result is breathtaking.
While I recommend listening to the album as a whole, there are definitely some highlights. The openers “Cowboy” and “All Mine” both sound as if they should have been the themes to some lost Bond films. This is only increased by Gibbons’ Shirley Bassey-based vocals heard in “Cowboy.” “Undenied” has a sense of longing that borders on the tragic, which is revisited later on “Mourning Air” and “Only You.” The six-minute “Humming” provides Gibbons a chance to sing soprano against what sounds like a theremin, making it feel almost alien, an effect taking to the extreme in “Elysium.” Gibbons’ voice is all over the place in this album, showing the amazing ability of her singing.
Both Barrows and Gibbons have been doing side projects since releasing this album ten years. Officially, Portishead has been on “hiatus” since this work, but rumors have been going around that Album number three is on the way. If its anything as good as their first two, then they will justify the long absence.
Bottom line: listen to this (and Dummy while you’re at it).

Who would like it?

Those of you who like atmospheric music that evokes romantic images of spies and espionage. Also recommended for those who liked Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (1998) and Tricky’s Maxinquaye (1995).