Review: Portishead’s “Third”

May 6, 2008 5:28pm

Back in 1994, Portishead’s classic debut album “Dummy” set a new standard for the then-growing genre of trip-hop.  Combining a cool, eerie jazziness, a flare for old movie scores and inventive, ground-breaking beat-work, the group found themselves immediately classic.  “Dummy” still stands as one of the best albums of the nineties.  It is funny though to imagine that something like their massive single “Sour Times” actually had some traction on pop radio.  (Sadly, today it probably wouldn’t, but back then radio was much more open to experimentation thanks to the alternative revolution.) Three years later, the band returned with a self titled effort.  It was a tad darker than “Dummy” and it found lead-singer Beth Gibbons taking on an interesting vocal-affectation on a few tracks.  The single “All Mine” sounded like a James Bond theme from another dimension.  A year later, they released “PNYC.”  It was a stellar live album featuring backup from a relatively sizable orchestra.  “Third” is the band’s first studio album in 11 years, which in the music world is an almost unforgivable eternity, but time has been good to them.  The industry hasn’t forgotten them in the least, thus they return retaining their much respected status.  Their recent, triumphant performance at the Coachella music festival also made it clear that their status is still well-deserved.  As an album, “Third” finds the band in their weirdest place yet.  The integrity of their signature style is still intact, although this album sadly lacks the turntable element present on their first two records.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find an artsier, edgier, darker, more claustrophobic album this year.  This is a challenge, but it’s also a thrill.  Listeners expecting something simple should look elsewhere, for this is some heavy, tripped-out material.    It begins with “Silence,” which is anything but.  Rather, it’s a frantically-paced, almost threatening-sounding workout. The drums crash, the bass throbs, while spooky guitar-crescendos bounce around the track.  More than two minutes into the song, the instrumentation takes a backseat and Gibbons enters, sounding more haunted and tormented than ever.  This is not music for a party, more like the best score for a horror movie ever constructed.  “Hunter” sounds like it should be more peaceful, with its relaxed tone.  It sounds like a chilled torch-song until the guitar crashes in a long, dissonant note.  Once it regains composure, your sense of uneasiness is thrown a bone by a sudden “Twilight Zone”-esque organ.  The track is woozy.  It is also winning.  Gibbons is a stellar vocalist in the oldest sense.  If she wanted, she could whip up a collection of jazz standards, but this is way more interesting.  “Nylon Smile” begins with some squeaky guitar and a pounding almost eastern-sounding pounded rhythm.  It’s another terrorized jazz sketch given the most twisted of backdrops, but that merely sets the mood.  “The Rip” is more peaceful.  With a soft beeping sound, an acoustic guitar fades in, while Gibbons sings with an old-time-style echo on her voice.  It has its minor-key bends, but this is among the brightest tracks on here.  When it picks up, and the keyboards take over, the track gets coated in a glorious texture, and it almost brings to mind the work of Goldfrapp.  Portishead have never used keyboards quite like this before, and it’s a momentous step.  “Plastic” brings back the darkness.  Again, Gibbons sounds scared, as a picking, swirling sound takes over your speakers.  An organ fades in, giving way to crisp drums which throttle your ears.  The almost-helicopter-like sound continues, until it is brought to a head by more well-placed dissonance.  “We Carry On” is easily the score to your next trip to a haunted mansion.  I don’t know how many haunted mansions you ever go to, but if you ever were to go to one, this would be fitting accompaniment.  Never have Portishead sounded so tightly-wound and tense.  The drums go from a nervous, continuous pound to a strong marching-band assault, while an organ bangs out a quickly-repeated three-note refrain.  Again, the guitars are used to add a layer of dissonance.  “Deep Water” sounds like a breather, a break from the tension.  It’s like an old-time ukulele-esque number, with Gibbons singing in her highest sweetest tone. The track sounds ancient, and the nice background vocals from The Somerfield Workers Choir and Team Brick add to the effect. “Machine Gun” is the album’s challenging single.  It seems to be named for its almost intrusive rat-a-tat-tat beat.  When I first heard it a few months ago, I must admit I was not that wild about it, but that was because I first heard on youtube.  The sound quality there is not always the best, and the mixing made the beat sound even louder.  Now that I can hear it as it was intended, mixed down on real stereo-speakers, I completely understand why it was picked as a single.  Not only that, but towards the end, the track trips-out into a new sonic universe.  At first it seems monotonous, but it grows and changes.  Again, it is helped by some nice keyboard work.  My first impression was wrong.  This track is great, but it probably won’t have a “Sour Times” level of success.  “Small” is at first a soft guitar-driven ballad.  Then a soft, insistent cello line comes in.  Suddenly a time-counting, spooky organ takes over, with guitar sounds punctuating the tension.  The drums kick in and the group takes an extended, very psychedelic instrumental break.  It is stunning and hypnotizing, until it stops and Gibbons and the cello make their return.  This is some moody, darkly beautiful material.  “Magic Doors” begins with a long beeping noise. Then a tripping beat enters with enough cowbell to make Christopher Walken happy.  The Hurdy Gurdy on the track adds a whole other weird element, as does Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory’s squeaky saxophone freak-out.   It’s a strange, interesting guest-turn.  The record closes with “Threads,” which continues the line of uneasiness.  It may be the band’s best, clearest example of the album’s sound.  It is sparse and minor.  As it picks up, the guitar distortion adds more dissonance.  Gibbons lyric of “I’m always so unsure” adds to the chaos.  Indeed she and her Portishead bandmates Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley have once again produced something different and ground-breaking.  “Third” is odd but fully rewarding.  Like Radiohead, Portishead have never feared to try out new textures and challenge their audience.  Let’s hope it doesn’t take them another 11 years to follow this up. This time the wait was well worth it!

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