Friday, June 12, 2009

June 12: Portishead, "Dummy"

Artist: Portishead
Album: Dummy
Year: 1994
Label: Go! Discs

Call it "trip hop," "ambient," "downbeat techno," or "chillout music," it all pretty much describes the same genre of music that exploded in the early 1990's. Perhaps it is the constant gray weather and rain that helped Bristol, England to produce the spacey, sober tones that define "trip hop" and ambient music. The fact is, with the likes of Massive Attack and Tricky both hailing from the city, it is hard to hand the title of "birthplace of trip hop" to any other place. Then of course, there was the emergence of Bristol's most famous singer, and one of their more successful groups, Beth Gibbons and her group, Portishead. Creating breathtaking musical soundscapes, overlain with Gibbons' sultry vocals, Portishead brought the sound of downbeat techno to the masses. Finding absolutely musical perfection on their 1994 debut, Dummy, the group became overnight superstars with their gorgeous mixture of sounds and styles.

Easily the best known song of Portishead's career was found on Dummy, the smash single, "Sour Times." The truth is, "Sour Times" was actually released twice, and it didn't take off until the second release, following the success of the single "Glory Box." The heart of the song is Gibbons' brilliant, wailing vocal and the sampled hook from Lalo Schifrin's "Danube Incident." One fact that most people don't know is that Dummy managed to win the 1995 Mercury Prize For Music (a yearly award for the best album from the UK or Ireland), beating out the likes of PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love and Oasis' Definately Maybe among others. With the amazing vocals of Beth Gibbons, and the overall gloomy feel to the music, Portishead was able to cross over from the techno world and reach the "indie" and underground music fans. It is this crossover that made the band a success, set them apart from their peers, as well as bringing credibility and notoriety to the new genre.

Though there are many instruments used throughout Dummy, the reality is, there are only two musicians in the band. Relying heavily on programmed drums and sound effects, the duo of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley create some of the most stunning musical textures that have ever been heard. On Dummy, much of the percussion work, both live and sampled was contributed by Dave MacDonlad. For a majority of the album, Barrow is parked behind a Rhodes piano or the mixing board, though he makes a brief appearance on drums on the tracks, "It's A Fire" and the albums' lead single, "Numb." Barrow also worked the entire string arrangement on "Roads," as well as a having a huge hand in the background sounds. Utley shines with his guitar work, both lead and bass, throughout Dummy, and it is often his musical contributions that gives the music a bit of a sinister, "spy movie," type of mood. The albums' opening track, "Mysterons," features a breathtaking sonic landscape, and this is very much due to the theremin work of Utley. Dummy features sample from everyone from Issac Hayes to War to Johnnie Ray to the aforementioned classical compositions of Lalo Schifrin, and it is this diversity in influences that helps the album to have a great diversity in sound, whilst keeping a consistent mood.

It goes without saying that both Dummy, as well as Portishead in general, would be nothing without the smooth, alluring vocals of Beth Gibbons. Often sounding like a more angst-ridden and morose Sade, it is the voice of Gibbons that lifted the group above their peers and drew in the "indie" audience around the globe. It is almost magical how Gibbons' voice flutters in and out of each track, finding the balance between not upsetting the brilliant musical texture, and never being too forceful. Her vocal range is limitless, and her delivery is often angelic in nature, making the songs on Dummy nothing short of blissful. However, Beth Gibbons also has the reputation of being beyond shy, and her determined avoidance of interviews hindered the groups' success due to a lack of media coverage outside of the U.K. Gibbons' leaves little to the imagination in her lyrics, with songs of heartache, loss, and overall melancholy themes. These lyrics are conveyed perfectly, with her sad, bluesy voice making the songs nearly heartbreaking at times. The voice of Beth Gibbons is rich and sultry, and absolutely mesmerizing, yet the overall mood of despair is rarely absent.

The genre of downbeat techno or trip hop has been pushed and molded into countless other sub-genres over the past fifteen years. Even with all of these mutations of the sound, many of the most prominent bands still come from its birthplace, Bristol, England. It is Portishead that truly paved the way for groups like Sneaker Pimps, Zero 7, and Moloko, as without Portisheads' contributions, the sound and style may have never reached beyond techno music fans. With their stunning musical landscapes and the unmistakable singing of Beth Gibbons, Portishead brought the sound of Bristol to the world and became underground legends in the process. Though they took a brief hiatus in the late 1990's, the group is still working and performing together, having released a stellar "return" album in 2008. Creating a hypnotizingly despondent mood with their gorgeous musical textures and the mind-blowing voice of Beth Gibbons, the 1994 debut from Portishead, Dummy, stands as a cornerstone of the trip-hop genre and is one of the most fantastic musical experiences ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Sour Times," "Numb," and "Glory Box."

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