Friday, July 22, 2011

July 22: Portishead, "Glory Box"

Artist: Portishead
Song: "Glory Box"
Album: Dummy
Year: 1994

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Though it takes many different pieces to make a song truly captivating, bands and artists that have mastered the art of creating perfect moods stand among the most highly revered across the history of music.  Whether it is the angst-riddled urgency of punk, the often mesmerizing exploration of jazz, the deep, soulful sound of blues, or any other type of musical perfection, when mood is deployed properly, there is never any question as to the brilliance of the song.  Though they were not the first to pull off such a feat, even in their own genre, there are few groups in history that have shown this balance and ability in finer fashion than Portishead, and it is quite difficult to not get completely caught up in any of their songs.  Having learned a great deal from the releases of Massive Attack, the group was able to push the electronic genre forward, showing how one could bring other styles into ambient textures.  Presenting a superb mix of hip-hop, electronic, and soul roots, Portishead were also able to give their songs enough edge, and add in sufficient guitar work that their songs reached far beyond the normal electronic or ambient fan groups.  Even almost twenty years later, Portishead's 1994 debut, Dummy, stands as an absolute classic of the genre, as well as one of the best of the decade, and there are few songs that are more mesmerizing or outright beautiful than the experience to be had within Portishead's 1994 single, "Glory Box."

As with a majority of the Portishead catalog, the beauty within the music is the result of the unique vision of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley.  As "Glory Box" slowly fades in, the mood is instantly established, courtesy of a knocking drum beat, and a sample from Isaac Hayes', "Ike's Rap II."  Though the sample has become one of the most commonly used within the trip-hop genre, the way in which it is deployed here is perhaps the finest use in terms of both tone and pace.  The way that the sample gives "Glory Box" a slight sway is what begins to wrap around the listener, enveloping them in a smooth, slow lullaby.  Barrow keeps the drums rather sparse, and this helps to keep the delicate mood of the song from being disturbed.  However, it is Utley's performance on guitar that proves the possibility of adding both volume and attitude to such an arrangement, whilst keeping the overall feel of the song intact.  His fuzzy guitar interludes throughout the song push the tension and mood even higher, and it is also this aspect of the song that enabled "Glory Box" to find crossover appeal within the alternative rock audience.  However, the powerful guitar is superbly balanced by Utley's playing on a Hammond organ, and the soul of the song can be found in this arrangement.  The slight echo that comes from both gives the song an amazing amount of depth, and the combined efforts of Utley and Barrow make the song such that it is just as absorbing every time it is played.

Despite the absolutely phenomenal musical arrangement on "Glory Box," it is the vocal track from Beth Gibbons that truly makes the song the extraordinary recording that it remains to this day.  The way in which she is able to take on almost two different personalities during the song adds to the already staggering level of depth on "Glory Box," and yet it is also the contrast in emotion between the verses and choruses that is so stunning.  During the verses, Gibbons borders on a spoken delivery, and there is a bit of a strut in her voice, giving a strong sense of independence and confidence.  However, this seems to shift completely on the chorus sections, as she unleashes her unparalleled vocal power, pushing to the fullest extent of her emotions.  The pain and frustration that rings through at this point is the final element that one needs to become completely engrossed in "Glory Box," and it is also her soaring singing that truly puts the "glory" in the songs' title.  When one steps back from her breathtaking performance, the lyrics to "Glory Box" stand as some of the most brutally honest, yet morose words ever penned, and one can easily feel how Gibbons presents the protagonist as completely torn.  Clearly stating to her love that she is tired of the "games" of girls, few lines have captured the pain of love more accurately than when Gibbons laments, "...give me a reason to love you, give me a reason to be, a woman..."  In both the straightforward nature of the words, as well as the absolutely gorgeous way in which Beth Gibbons sings every line, there are few vocal performances on par with that found on "Glory Box."

From beginning to end, Portishead shows the true meaning of "perfect mood" throughout "Glory Box," and it remains one of the most potent musical experiences ever recorded.  The instant the song begins, the listener is completely entranced in the mood, and as the song closes, the level of emotion is such that one of the only possible reactions is to simply play the song again.  While there is certainly a level of somber, dark feelings at play throughout "Glory Box," it stands as a uniquely energizing musical experience, and this is largely due to the combination of the soaring vocal moments, as well as the sharp guitar interludes.  The fact that Portishead were able to so perfectly balance these sounds with the sluggish, yet spellbinding drums and samples is the clearest proof of their talents, and their efforts here would pave the way for many other bands to straddle the line between trip-hop and "alternative" rock.  Taking all of this musical perfection into account, one cannot write-off the somewhat unspoken message within the songs' title.  Many have interpreted it in different ways, but if one takes it for the common euphemism for the female organ, then it manages to work perfectly with the songs' overall message, and give the lyrics an even more empowering message.  In literally every aspect, Portishead achieved a completely flawless performance, combining a captivating musical arrangement with absolutely magnificent vocals to make their 1994 single, "Glory Box" one of the most spectacular moments in all of music history.

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