09 May, 2008

Album Review - Portishead's "Third"

Release Date: April 29, 2008
Label: Mercury Records
No. of Tracks: 11

Eleven years ago, when Portishead last released a studio album, they were one of the most integral bands in alternative music. Their 1994 album Dummy and 1997 self-titled release swept the alternative world by storm as grunge was dying. A plethora of bands were started trying to recreate the ghostly ambiance of their hip-hop beat driven compositions. They made the term trip-hop part of the social lexicon, even though they never truly fit into that category alongside their more dance-oriented contemporaries and detested the association.

Now, Portishead is back with their simply titled album Third. A popular slogan circulating around this album has been "Don't Call it a Comeback." And the slogan is a very apt way of describing the return: it isn't so much a reappearance by the band as it is a new incarnation of the group. They have moved away from the heavy beats and bass for the most part in favour of a more rock-tinged sound. Gone are the sweeping orchestral arrangements and long samples the group was previously known for incorporating. Only a few lone violins and a voice sample are left from the old Portishead sound. In are a lot more guitars and natural percussion instruments. The overall mood of the album is still dark, but it avoids being both angry and depressing.

Of course, Beth Gibbons still stars as the chanteuse of the band. Although her voice shows some obvious signs of aging, it still manages to retain its startling beauty. The best one word description of Ms. Gibbons' voice is fragile. It is well above average, not quite exceptional, but the emotion with which she sings forces the listener to feel the vulnerability of the lyrics, not just hear them. While Beth continues to do what she does best, Adrian Utley, the band's guitarist, has taken on a much more central role in the band's music. A jazz guitarist by trade, Mr. Utley steps it up several notches throughout the album and shows no fear in experimenting with distortion pedals and delays. The result lends a much fuller sound than the band has previously displayed, with hardly any of the haunting silence that pervaded their previous albums. Geoff Barrow, the band's producer and multi-instrumentalist, has traded in his turntables for indigenous percussion instruments and electric drum heads. He has retained the keyboard, and it as well is used to much fuller effect throughout the album. The result is an organic feel to a record that is obviously heavily produced, no small feat by any means.

The album begins with the five-minute track "Silence". While not the most complete track on the recording, it serves as a wake up call to longtime fans of the group and exhibits nearly every change the band has undergone over the past 11 years. There is an abrupt and jolting transition into the next track "Hunter", a testament of love song punctuated by deep bass drum thuds and an alternating jazz and distortion guitar. "Nylon Smile" is a song not meant for the faint of heart. It is a very challenging composition despite its relative simplicity. The lyrics deal with a sense of unworthiness ("I don't know what I've done to deserve you..."), and Ms. Gibbons really makes you feel the song to your very core. "The Rip" marks this album's real "taking off" point. The song begins with Ms. Gibbons and Mr. Utley intertwining sweet melodies before swelling into an uplifting drum beat and keyboard piece. "Plastic" is as close as this album comes to previous Portishead songs, with a helicopter-like scratch sample, copious keys, and the occasional gong blast. "We Carry On" features a tribal drum beat, alternately-tuned guitar riff, and mind-scorching although repetitive keyboard composition. "Machine Gun", the album's first single, lives up to its title and grabs the listener from the start. The song could easily be classified as industrial if it weren't for another astonishing vocal performance from Ms. Gibbons. The subject matter is a reluctance to accept responsibility even in the face of dire consequences. It features a heavily distorted electric drum beat and equally distorted guitar punctuations that also serve justice to the song title. "Small" is the album's only "ethereal" song. At nearly seven minutes in length, the song transitions from vocals, viola, and distorted guitar to '60s-themed keyboards and a wild delay-pedal guitar twice over. "Magic Doors" is a voyage into jazz with piano, cowbell (woohoo!), and a trumpet sample reminiscent of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's style. "Threads", the last song, is my only gripe with this album, as the song does little to set itself apart from the rest of the album and leaves little parting impression on the listener.

All in all, this is an extremely moving album. It goes to much greater depths in nearly every way, and has a tendency to linger in your head. Due to the more hands-on approach in songcraft, these songs will certainly translate easily into a breathtaking live performance. The band recently headlined one night of the Coachella Music & Cultural Arts Festival and toured Europe earlier this year. So far, no US tour dates have been announced, a disturbing trend amongst current British acts. But there are many rumours circulating that a US tour will be forthcoming from these three extremely talented and influential musicians, so keep your eyes peeled.

Essential Tracks: "Nylon Smile", "The Rip", "Plastic", "Machine Gun", "Magic Doors"

Overall album rating (out of 5): 4.25

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