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The Noir Sound Of Portishead

There are certain songs -- whole albums, sometimes -- which slowly, but surely, get under your skin and take hold of your very being. Sometimes, it's as if a new personality invades your consciousness, and, for a while at least, changes your perspective.

Such was the case with "Sour Times," Portishead's breakthrough 1994 single, as well as the group's entire debut album, Dummy. Back then, critics swooned to Beth Gibbons' dreamy vocals and Geoff Barrow's homemade sampling brews. It took two years for the quartet -- which also includes guitarist Adrian Utley and musician/engineer Dave McDonald -- to craft a follow-up.

Portishead is a plaintive, disturbing and refreshingly honest album that builds on the sound that made their first record such a revelation.

It was worth the wait. Just a few listens and you can already feel the sounds permeating your very soul.

Portishead's return should more than satisfy fans of the band's drowsy, noir melancholia. Although in an early 1995 Dummy-era interview with Addicted to Noise, Barrow predicted Portishead's music would take a new direction, Portishead is a plaintive, disturbing and refreshingly honest album that builds on the sound that made their first record such a revelation.

"Cowboys," the opening track, with its siren-like reverberations breaking loose as Gibbons' disconnected voice enters the scene, immediately establishes that Portishead is going to take you to somewhere else. A record-pop loop recalls an older time, a sepia-toned history with elements of 1940s jazz, while Gibbons, in razor blade tones, warns: "But don't despair, this day will be the damnedest day/ If you take these things from me."

Much of the record borrows its ambiance from pre-rock musical constructions; It's the kind of music which might have been made for black and white films, if samplers had existed in the 1930s.

Several tracks make liberal use of fuzzy record crackles, layered with a favorite Barrow ploy: old-school scratching by way of American hip-hop, an effect which brings tension to numbers such as "Over," "Only You" and "Elysium." However, while hip-hop artists use the scratch as a beat-building mechanism, Barrow creates off-rhythm layers which manipulate the mood of Portishead's compositions.

The undeniable draw of the band is Gibbons' voice. Through often tiny effects a la Billie Holiday, she displays a range of emotions, from the near-sobbing tremble of "Undenied," where she asks, "Now that I've found you/ And seen behind those eyes/ How can I carry on?" to cold fury in songs such as "Elysium" and "Seven Months," where she sings, "Why should I forgive you after all that I've seen?/ Quietly whisper when my heart wants to scream?"

Gibbons' shows us her sultry side to carry a jazzy melody in the first single, "All Mine." At first the track seems like an unabashed love song, with big-band horns punctuating Gibbons' croon. "But when you smile, oh how I feel so good/ That I can hardly wait to hold you and fold you/ Never enough, render your heart to me/ All mine." It's so genuine that the listener can't help but suspect a darker truth, which Gibbons renders in the next verse: "Make no mistake, you shan't escape/ Tendered and tied, there's nowhere to hide from me/ All mine." She also puts on her best Billie Holiday for "Western Eyes." When she trills lines such as, "Yes, I'm breaking at the seams, just like you," there's no doubting her sincerity.

Other touches that flesh out Portishead's unusual sonic atmosphere: Guitarist Adrian Utley's 007 guitar lines on "Seven Months" and "Mourning Air," along with sampled trumpets, strings and various eerie noises.

Perhaps the most unique-sounding track, however, is "Half Day Closing," a psychedelic explosion of dissonance and sorrow. Gibbons' voice is treated with warbled Leslie effects while electronic scales build behind her, creating a space-age undercurrent that suggests disconnectedness. In a telling line Gibbons sings, "In the olden days when everybody knew what they wanted -- it ain't today."

Portishead's music at once seems to invoke the past -- some hazy period between the smoky jazz clubs of the 1930s and the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s -- and a futuristic landscape laid flat by despair. Tension builds between Gibbons' sweet, sadly delivered melodies and Barrow's dissonant rhythms and scraps of noise.

With their new album, Portishead indicates that there are still vast sonic landscapes to explore. And this is just the beginning.

Portishead Lyrics

Favorite Album: Dummy
Favorite Song:  Every song on "Dummy" (seriously)



The title alone tells you much of what you need to know about this album -- that it's a noisy, chaotic amalgam of DJ culture, live beats and good old-fashioned guitars. In Propellerheads' British homeland, this type of combination has livened up a scene where techno "trainspotters" were becoming increasingly anal in their overly serious pursuit of purity, and where "indie" rockers were denying the existence of any decade since the 1960s. For those who enjoy a little of everything -- and who enjoy the process of enjoying it -- the new, beer-and-amphetamine-fueled "big beat" sound of Propellerheads, Fatboy Slim, Bentley Rhythm Ace and others has been a godsend. Rock 'n' roll is suddenly fun again. Dance music is fun again. Even better, they appear to be one and the same thing.

"Less expected, perhaps, are the two new tracks added since the U.K. release earlier this year."

But although their approach to musicmaking might appear drunk and disorderly, the figureheads behind Propellerheads know precisely what they're doing. As well they should, given their credentials. Alex Gifford is a 34-year-old journeyman who has played piano for Van Morrison, played saxophone for The Stranglers, played synths for The Grid and engineered for Peter Gabriel. Twentysomething Will White, the son of a respected jazz drummer, is a sticksman of the highest order, has played in an acid-jazz/hip-hop band and worked as a DJ. The two, who reside in the quiet, old university town of Bath, have thrown all their experience into the Propellerheads project, but just as important, they've thrown in all their enthusiasm, too. Gifford will tell you this is the first time he has truly, thoroughly enjoyed the musicmaking process.

Perhaps it's just coincidence, then, that they should be doing so well with something they so love. But certainly Gifford and White could not have chosen a better climate in which to indulge their love of spy themes: the lounge scene has revived interest in soundtracks and the supposedly finer accoutrements of life -- things like cocktails and sharp suits -- while big beat is naturally cinematic, with its sudden stabs of melodramatic melody over big, bold drums and epic breakdowns. These genres meet time and again on DECKSANDRUMSANDROCKANDROLL -- from Propellerheads' early single and high-octane album-opener "Take California," which still sounds like a battle scene to save the planet, through to their three U.K. singles from last year: the self- descriptive "Spybreak," since used for a car chase in the David Duchovny film "Playing God"; the jazzy and brash "History Repeating," with the great Bond theme veteran Shirley Bassey on vocals; and their masterful reworking of the "007" soundtrack, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," which producer David Arnold also featured on his recent Shaken And Stirred tribute.

If these tracks appear overly dramatic and foreboding, don't worry: the humor of big beat culture is clearly evident elsewhere. "Velvet Pants" features a speech from a documentary on groupies, "Number of Microphones" stars Will White as a human beatbox, and "Bigger" matches its subject matter with suitably phat keyboard lines. While some of the vocal samples are almost juvenile in their wit, the music itself never suffers. Sure, it puts a smile on the face, even makes you giggle, but why shouldn't a predominantly instrumental form of music tickle your funny bone as well as shake your ass?

Less expected, perhaps, are the two new tracks added since the U.K. release earlier this year. "360 Degrees" is a reworking of an instrumental "Oh Yeah" -- but with De La Soul on vocals -- while the finale, "You Want It Back," is uptempo hip-hop starring the Jungle Brothers. Both are functional and will serve them well with American post-rave headz. But the Propellerheads' most likely audience will still be the alt-rock, frat-boy crowd that has adopted the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy en masse. For them, this is an album made in block-rockin' heaven -- with the panache and wit of classic James Bond.

Favorite Album: decksanddrumsandrockandroll 
Favorite Song: History Repeating featuring the magnificent Shirley Bassey

Fatboy Slim
Check It Out Now -- The Funk Soul Brother

Norman Cook used to be the bassist for the Housemartins, but you'd never know it from the wild dance floor cut-ups he's been doing for the last ten years or so -- initially as Beats International (remember their Clash/S.O.S. Band hybrid "Dub Be Good To Me"?), later as a series of one-off names he took for fun little singles ("Real Sounds Of Africa," "Pizzaman" and the like, mostly collected on the Southern Fried House compilation) and most recently as Fatboy Slim. Slim's modus operandi is pretty stable: find a couple of out-of-the-way samples that go together nicely and make them dirty-dance together until they hit it off, using the repeat-and-truncate patterns that Todd Terry pioneered for dance music. "The Rockafeller Skank," the leadoff single from MTV's Amp 2 compilation, has been catching on with modern-rock stations, and this four-track EP (including two versions of "Rockafeller" and two lesser jams) has appeared to fill the void for Fatboy product.

The stroke of genius is a nod to the late '80s electro classic "French Kiss."

"Rockafeller" is Cook's most indelible piece in ages, more or less by sheer luck. It's a snippet of hip-hop speak ("Right about now -- the funk soul brother"), a bit of what sounds like Duane Eddy lead guitar, a couple of measures' worth of a disco-rock riff and not much else, arranged in a variety of positions worthy of the Kama Sutra. The stroke of genius, though, is a nod to the late '80s electro classic "French Kiss." The track suddenly shudders to a halt halfway through, starts up again as a slow pounder, then accelerates to its initial sprint -- a sort of "Come On Eileen" for a digital, post-verbal, post-melody time.

As for the other two tracks, "Always Read The Label" is an old-school hip-hop loop prettied up with those four-on-the-floor edits for six minutes, and the drumless instrumental "Tweakers Delight" recalls the early days of acid house, when all you really needed was a 303 pattern (a 303 was a synth/drum machine that was used on a lot of early acid house records) and a flanger (a sound-altering device that changes the tone but not the pitch of a series of notes) to make a mark on the E'd-out crowds.

Favorite Album: The Rockafella Skank EP 
Favorite Song: The Rockafella Skank