Trip-hop may be dead, Portishead is not

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By Corinne Love

Portishead’s “Third.” (Mercury records)

By Corinne Love

Portishead will always be creepy sounding.

Its sound conjures up old spy films, dark alleyways and the foreboding sense that something dark and beautiful has come to get you. Not to mention the band has a certain mystery to its look.

It’s been years since Beth Gibbons soberly crooned that nobody loved her on 1994’s “Dummy.” Then “Portishead” was released in ’97. A staggering eleven year between those two albums and “Third” has kept fans and critics in suspense over when the Bristol group was going to return.

The band seemed to fade away into the after-hours play list of hip, thoughtful and brooding types.

Portishead inspired plenty of knock-off bands striving to replicate the swirling guitars, thick samples and barely audible whispers.

But, nothing is better than the real thing.

Portishead is known for making misery sound soothing. “Third” finds the group searching for itself in the dark, really. Bits and pieces from “Portishead” and “Dummy” sneak in but only to make cameos. It’s a subtle reminder that listeners did purchase a Portishead album. Aside from that, it’s a gloomy party and every musical genre is invited.

“Third” reprises Gibbons role as a woman on the verge of an emotional breakdown intensified by Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow’s workmanship, adding some jazz influences here and Kraftwerk elsewhere.

“Machine Gun” sounds exactly like the title suggests, and it hits hard. The relief from the noise comes when Gibbons’ weary torch-singer-in distress shimmers. “Machine Gun” was leaked on My Space and hyped up the new album. Of course, there was plenty of speculation, was the band really going to put out another album?

Answers appeared on the 2008 Coachella bill and Portishead performed April 27 to a warm reception.

The other leaked single “We Carry On” a smothered arrangement of fuzz guitars and choppy drums, swings and levels on with the occasional burst of noise to set off what can only be described as anxiety. Anxiety never sounded so cool.

Where previous albums carried the torch of trip-hop, “Third” has to reconcile that trip-hop as it was known, is now dead. Those looking for a nostalgic trip would be better off buying those previous albums. “Plastic” sounding like a somewhat long-lost B-side from “Dummy” starts off with very familiar territory. Retaining Portishead’s atmospheric tendencies it replaces the hip hop samples with ’70s soul backdrops and sci-fi cult film scores.

Suprisingly, “Nylon Smile” is quite danceable with tinges of pyschedelia and exotic drums.

Although trip-hop has been a main focus in Portishead albums, “Third” subtly explores other genres. The folksy “The Rip” gives Gibbons a chance to slide out of the torch-singer-in-distress bit and into a more relaxed, huskier Crystal Gayle. Gayle isn’t the only vocalist that can be heard in “Third.”

The eerie “Hunter” calls to mind Francois Hardy singing in perfect English. This was a good call to make in production. “Hunter” highlights “Third”‘s juxtaposition dealing with the soft and the discord. Many of the songs coast beautifully until a randomly placed buzz, clang, or chop noise enters the picture. Not to say that listeners won’t feel it coming.

Keeping “Third” distinct from the other two albums might alienate some listeners, but it will satisfy those who are willing to take the chance.

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