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.

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 indicate that there are still vast

sonic landscapes to explore. And this is just the beginning.