Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Originally Written and Posted at on 7/18/09.

When Massive Attack released Blue Lines in 1991, a new sound had emerged from the town of Bristol, England. A combination of dub, hip-hop, house music, jazz, soul, and down-tempo electronic music that became known as trip-hop. One of the early associates of Massive Attack was Geoff Barrow, who worked as an assistant in recording the seminal Blue Lines album. Interested in what Massive Attack had created, Barrow had also collaborated with Tricky and Neneh Cherry that lead to a successful reputation as a producer. Around that time he was working as a producer, he met vocalist Beth Gibbons as the two decided to work on a project. Teaming up with jazz guitarist Adrian Utley, they formed Portishead.

Along with engineer Dave MacDonald, the group began work on their debut album for a year where the trip-hop music sub genre was starting to gain ground. February of 1994 saw the release of the highly anticipated sophomore release from Massive Attack entitled Protection to excellent acclaim and commercial success. Yet, that record would finally be eclipsed by the release of Portishead's debut album entitled Dummy.

Produced by Portishead with songs written and performed by the band, Dummy is an album that encompass the sound of trip-hop to new heights. Taking the music to more dramatic territory and ominous soundscapes. The music features the haunting guitar work of Adrian Utley, Geoff Barrow's atmospheric electronic work, and the chilling yet enchanting vocals of Beth Gibbons. With samples ranging from people like Issac Hayes, Eric Burdon & War, and Johnnie Ray. It's a record that is truly not just one of the landmark recordings of the trip-hop genre but one of the greatest debut records ever made.

The album opens with Mysterons that features a soothing, melodic keyboard track that is followed by turntable scratches, swooning whistles, and hollow, sputtering drum fills. With Gibbons' chilling vocals and Adrian Utley's melodic guitar chimes, the song features desperate, haunting lyrics and a presentation that is brooding with a slow, groove-laden bass and an atmospheric production that helps set the tone for the record. The single Sour Times features an arrangement of bell-like chimes with mid-tempo, bouncy beats and wobbly bass lines with Utley's melodic, twangy guitar riffs as Gibbons sings in her calm, angelic vocals with despairing lyrics. With its haunting arrangements of synthesizers and shimmering bell chimes, it's one of the most definitive tracks of the trip-hop sub genre.

Strangers arrives with a brief saxophone that is followed by bopping, clap-like beats and a washy jazz-like guitar riff from Adrian Utley to accompany Gibbons' wailing, hollow vocals. With Gibbons' vocals coming in full form through its mix and production, she's accompanied by it's superb arrangements of beats, droning bass lines, jazzy bells, and blaring horns to play up to the song's evocative, sprawling yet subtle presentation. It Could Be Sweet arrives with sputtering beats and scratchy sounds that play up to a smooth, lounge-jazz style of swooning keyboards and rhythms to accompany Gibbons' somber vocals. With its cool, soothing lyrics, it's a song that revels in its atmospheric sound mixed in with lounge jazz without being too cheesy or dull. Wandering Star opens with a thumping bass groove as it's followed by hollow snare beats and a slow, sputtering beat. With Gibbons' calm, eerie vocals leading the way for the song. It's accompanied by turntable scratches and horn samples from War's Magic Mountain as it plays to a smooth, groove-laden sound with brief piano strikes as it's mostly driven by Geoff Barrow's arrangements of turntable scratches and dark sound collages.

A bonus track on North American editions of the album is It's A Fire. A throbbing ballad of sorts led by Adrian Utley's smooth, jazz-like bass line, Barrow's smooth back beats, and a swooning organ track. With its somber lyrics and Gibbons' cool, wailing vocals, it's a song that revels in its subtlety and ode to smooth jazz without being too boring. Numb is led by an eerie organ track with slow, hollow metallic beats with scratchy electronics and Gibbons' high-pitch, wailing vocals. Filled with dark lyrics and layered arrangements by Barrow with Utley's smooth bass lines, it's a song that really plays up to the ethereal yet groove-laden sound of trip-hop. Roads arrives with a swooning, warbling sound of keyboards that drive the song along with a slow, bouncy beat. With Gibbons' somber vocals, the song revels in melancholia while featuring a soothing string arrangement and washy guitar spurts as it's a soothing yet trance-like song that revels in its atmosphere.

Pedestal is a brooding yet eerie tune with warbling, sputtering beats and turntable scratches that then becomes this smooth, bass-driven track with slow beats and Gibbons' soothing vocals. With different arrangements moving back and forth, it's another song that revels in experimentation as it includes a trumpet solo in the jazzy portion of the track. Biscuit arrives with a sample of blaring horns playing with a slow bass groove, warbling Rhodes piano tracks, and haunting snare drum fills. With Gibbons' chilling vocals, the song plays up to its brooding atmosphere with despairing lyrics and turntable scratches featuring a sample of Johnnie Ray's I'll Never Fall In Love Again through its distorted mix. The album closer Glory Box, which features a sample of Issac Hayes' Ike's Rap II, is a haunting track with a slow bass groove, smooth beats, and warbling guitars that play up to Gibbons' dramatic yet snarling vocal style. With its desperate lyrics, it's a song that plays up with a mean vocal style that becomes more angelic as it includes a somber string arrangement. The song's dramatic tone and eerie presentation helps bring a fitting close to the entire album.

Released in August of 1994, the album sent shockwaves into both the British music scene as well as the American alternative music scene. The record was considered a landmark not just for the trip-hop sub genre or electronic music but also for the alternative music scene itself as it was a huge hit in Britain. In America, the album was a sensation with critics and in the underground music scene selling upwards to 150,000 copies. Despite its success that included a well-received tour and a remix album, the band which mainly featured Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow were both publicity shy. With Gibbons refusing to do interviews and Barrow often being evasive, it added a certain mystique to the group. At the same time, a new wave of trip-hop acts followed with some imitating the groundbreaking sound that Portishead had created.

Dummy is truly a spectacular, haunting, yet intoxicating masterpiece from Portishead. Audiences who want an idea of trip-hop outside of the three albums by Massive Attack will no doubt find this record as a perfect example. In some respects, Dummy is superior to some of the output that Massive Attack had created where it was more about mood and textures as opposed to dance and post-punk in Massive Attack's work. In terms of what to get from Portishead, this is really the best place to start as Dummy, nearly 15 years since its release, is still an album that holds up after all these years.

Portishead Albums: Portishead - PNYC - Third

(C) thevoid99 2011

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