The Album List: # 193 Portishead “Dummy”

Sad doesn’t begin to describe Beth’s voice.

There are albums that evoke such a time and place that you tend to forget them.  It’s a shame that happens, as music is eternal and if you love something you should listen to it, regardless of the shame factor (hello, NKOTB). Dummy is so linked in my head to 1995 that I put it on a shelf for about a decade.

The benefit of children, specifically music nerd children like mine, is that they force you to revisit things. Much of this list has been me revisiting things as I lecture my children on the history of popular music. What, I’m sure it will help them somewhere along the line.

Portishead came up because of Lana del Ray. I do not hate Lana del Ray, unlike many of my hipster snob counterparts. Yes, her SNL performance defined the word excruciating, but her album work is very moody and specific, and the alto jazz tones of her voice are pleasant in a world of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry bubbly garbage.  del Ray forced me back into searching for those jazzy tones in dance music, so bands like Mazzy Star and Portishead made their way back into the rotation.  It was then that I remembered that Dummy  was one of my favourite albums of the mid-90s. I was not a happy person, (Was? Am? I’m not even sure what happy feels like, so I’m not really the best judge of my own emotions.) My anxiety riddled brain  flocks to miserablists. Beth Gibbons’ voice is the most devastatingly sad one in music history. She doesn’t even have to try, she just is so weepy sounding it’s amazing to me that Portishead doesn’t figure more into pop culture death references.

Bristol based Portishead were at the forefront of the British trip-hop scene, a genre that mixed jazz, hip hop beats, and soul music to exquisite effect (Massive Attack essentially invented the genre, and it was explicit in its relationship to the seaside town of Bristol). Massive Attack got all the glory, but Portishead was the band that scored the massive international hit with the dour, Schifirin inspired “Sour Times”, with Gibbons exquisite wail on the chorus- “‘Cause nobody loves me, it’s true. Not like you do.” Over some hip hop drums and spaghetti western guitar, Gibbons evokes a strong emotional reaction in me, a familiar one of devastation. This song makes me weepy.

On a song like “Numb”, where Gibbons’ voice stays in the upper part of her range, are less successful to me than the perfect retro cool of “Glory Box” (one of the most perfect songs in the history of perfect songs), but the album works as a whole because it is musically cohesive, thematically similar, and it just reeks of cool smoky club and black turtle necks.  Yes, the band is invoking lounge, but they made it cooler than ever. Someone out there appreciates Wayne Shorter,  Johnny Ray and Lalo Schifirin. (Me, yes.) This band appreciated them so much they SAMPLED them. Who samples the Weather Report? Portishead. Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow create the slow burn sound scape for the sweet sorrow of Gibbons’ relaxed misery.

The entire album is achingly beautiful, and it’s a shame that I put it away when I went off to school and became super obsessed with the Clash and other political music ( history major… with a fascination around the link between labour movements and art. There is one).  Portishead went on hiatus after their second album, only to return with heightened expectations no band can meet (their 2008 album, Third, is as beautiful and exquisite as both Dummy and Portishead).  But their influence is now everywhere, as trip hop now is the basis of the new chanteuse movement led by del Ray and other similar artists.  It was never a genre that caught on in the Americas the way I would have pegged back when I was a cocky but incredibly morose seventeen year old. It is good to see it in its new form. And I’m glad that it forced me to pull out the old records for a spin.



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