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THROWBACK THURSDAY: PORTISHEAD, “DUMMY”

 

WAIT–IS THE NEW YORK TIMES GOOD FOR ANYTHING?!?

Giving the Devil his due I actually have to thank the wretched “Old Grey Lady” for an article alerting me to the 25th anniversary of one of my favorite records….

WHAT IT SOUNDED LIKE TO ME THEN…

Dummy was once a great fixture in my cd rotation. The British have been great scavengers of American music, especially made by Black Americans, since the Beatles, and refashioning those sonic tropes into something new and skewered. What an American is likely to hear is repackaged exoticism. Eventually the greater artists(Beatles, Stones, The Who Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse et al) move beyond mimicry and astonish both sides of the Atlantic with a stunning palimpsest, the outlines of the original sources remain yet a new layer of paint is visible.

Cobbling together Isaac Hayes, Billie Holiday, 60s film scores, hip hop, dub reggae and God knows whatever else that was moody and slow moving, Portishead was as greyed out as Leonard Cohen or The Cure, but their melancholy floated atop a cascade of hypnotic beats and washed-out samples.

It was nonsense to hype Beth Gibbons as the “next” Billie Holiday, but she is in her own fashion a marvelous torch singer. With her voice slightly buried in the mix she’s a perfect vessel for the band’s icy waters. Portishead is unthinkable without her. She’s its lighthouse.

Echoing her sulk, the masterful arrangements and production were its own rewarding soundscape. Yes, they might have listened to contemporary American hip hop for their own pleasure, but Portishead had far more in common with their own English arty peers: Kate Bush, the Cure, but especially the Cocteau Twins. Trio. Charismatic yet idiosyncratic female singer. Layers of swirling sound. Yep, a template existed before their formation, even if Portishead reached theirs organically….

WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE TO ME NOW…

There’s a phenomenon only if you’re an older listener, prize the authenticity of a band or artist who takes pride in their concert performances and have been raised on live albums is that often you begin to prize the officially released live albums(and truthfully also the bootlegged ones) over the studio cuts. Even if the band/artist have made great studio recordings. For example, Nirvana. Rarely do I listen to Nevermind or In Utero. They’ve been out of my rotation since the late Nineties. Yet the MTV Unplugged album has been a frequent spin since its 1994 release. When I want to hear Nirvana its the sirens call.

Dummy occupies the same dusty shelf as Nevermind, while their 1998 live album Roseland NYC Live remains the enduring charmer. My ear has become so tuned by this album that listening to Dummy straight through has been a shocker. I prefer the live counterparts to the included Dummy tracks, the exception being “Sour Times.” The studio version is unparalleled, a transmission of a James Bond theme from a movie never made, a dollop of Sixties sonic fetishism(the twangy guitars, nibbling six string bass, a sulky girl singer, an arch arrangement) which remains undated. Live the band scraped away the Lalo Schfrin meets John Barry ornamentation, until what emerges from the Russian toy of an egg within an egg within an egg is a scorching rocker, a theremin howling behind the crunching guitar like a banshee.

Dummy never sounded claustrophobic until now., as my mind and ears keeps bouncing off Roseland like a game of ping pong. The former births the great songs, but in keeping with its general mood of melancholy, inertia and discomfort, hems everything as tightly as a skirt. It’s an unified mood piece, a la Serge Gainsbourg’s Historie de Melody Nelson or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.

Roseland expands those feelings—and arrangements. I think it has more to do with the musical extension of the band plus the full scope of an orchestra. Portishead had years to brood over the songs from their first two albums, to rethink them, challenge themselves and their audience. This one-off with strings constructs a Wall of Sound for their catalogue. But this is not some Phil Spector tribute, not the mini Wagnerian pop tune symphonies he envisioned. The tracks from both Dummy and Portishead begin on terra firma and then scale the wall ever upwards. The stitches of the skirt are ripped out, and what’s exposed isn’t the sexiness of Marilyn Monroe a la The Seven Year Itch, but more the space between notes that great jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis or Ahmad Jamal have always been after. In other words, the tunes breathe like never before. One isn’t superior to the other, but a preference is always a preference.

Maybe not surprisingly the Dummy tunes Roseland omits retain a more favorite status, and have been the ones I have listened to with more regularity over the last 25 years. “Pedestal” remains my favorite Portishead tune of all time, a more modest masterpiece than celebrated numbers like “Mysterions” and “Glory Box.” Directly influenced by reggae and dub, then refracted back through their sensibilities, it’s a hazy kaleidoscope of aural pleasures. Druggy in tempo, the electric bass bobbing in and out of the mix like a fishing lure atop a Jamaican pond, the notes as slippery as eels while pinging like sonar. There’s a faint resemblance to Lady Day in Beth’s voice, the timbres enhanced by the 78rpm creakiness of the processing. The lovelorn lyrics are aided by the generated wheeze applied to the sampling and over sampling of her voice. She and the bass are locked in a bittersweet duet, until a muted trumpet solo by Andy Hague triples the delirium.

And equally great is “Biscuit,” the following track. It’s a menancing trip-hop smear of melancholy Fender Rhodes chords, DJ scratches and squiggles plus Beth’s lonely, mournful vocals even before the ghostly appearance of a Johnny Ray sample, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” pitch-shifted to the spectral terrain of say where Twin Peaks resides. Slowing and lowering by octaves the late 1950s crooner’s voice adds a haunting hook perfect for the group’s ethos. Although at no time do Gibbons and Ray sing together, it’s less a manufactured technological duet between the living and the dead(e.g., Natalie and Nat “King” Cole on “Unforgettable”), than a Poe-like response from beyond the grave, the male lover’s side of the story. Somehow resisting an easy fall into camp, “Biscuit” like the entire album resonates atop an axis of moody, drifting dark clouds rising from ennui.

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