Monday, April 07, 2008

Portishead - Third Review


Portishead - Third (Island Records)

The release of Third by Portishead has been imbued with a heavy cultural significance. It has been reviewed on the Late Review, generated acres of coverage in the music press and broadsheet newspapers and there is a growing online buzz. It feels less like a release more an event.

In a music scene so deprived of anything approaching sonic innovation, there is a desperate desire for Third to be an audio panacea. That it will push the envelope, blur boundaries, feed our imaginations and extend out expectations. Relight the fire of experimental wonder at the crossroads of dance music and indie.

It’s been ten years since the misfiring second LP Portishead. Ten years? Is that too much of a wait or even a weight.? Has it been worth it? Frankly, no!

Back in 1994 it seemed that Portishead had discovered the future sound of heartache. Dummy inverted hip-hop. Slowing down the beats, removing the machismo and replacing it with angst and twisted song writing. Geoff Barrow strip mined the sonic template of hip-hop, capsizing the structure. These static Luna landscapes and haunted dancehalls where the perfect foil for Beth Gibbon’s smoky evocations.

The signifiers we all too quickly collected collated and copied by a host of pale imitators. The skinny latte genre of Trip Hop was commoditised and packaged. Now blaming Portishead for the likes of Sneaker Pimps is like blaming Elvis for Cliff Richard or The Beatles for Oasis the source material might be the same, the outcomes somewhat different.

The bands reaction to the wholesale larceny of their sound was to get darker, harder and grittier. The second LP, confusingly titled Portishead, replaced samples with live recordings and melancholy with full blown despair. It sounded like a band fighting too hard to distance themselves from their original sonic blueprint. The resulting songs where sterile and still born. Somewhere along the way they lost the magic that coursed through crackled hissing grooves of Dummy.

Third is much closer to the disappointing harsh metallic sounds of the bands second LP. The songs are overloaded with heavy bleeding synths, high whining strings, heavy strained rhythm patterns and a far too many turgid guitars.

Yes Third is dense but devoid of tension. It aims to be abrasive and harsh but comes across merely ingenuous and brash. You get the feeling that the band where aiming for something edgy, maybe the nightmarish soundscapes of Scott Walker’s Drift. If that was there intention they are wildly wide of the mark.

The Drift is bone chilling, a myriad mix of disconnected sound and complex Gnostic lyricism. A scream into the dark emotional void of the 21st Century. The only blood curdling aspect of Third is Beth Gibbon’s appalling lyrics. They are thrown into a stark and unforgiving spotlight, much more audible than on previous releases. They are so pitiful, sub teenage Goth platitudes that would be unforgivable for a teenager. That the author is over the age of 40 beggars’ belief.

The lyric issue wouldn’t be so crippling if the music wasn’t so grey, ponderous and lacking in dynamism. Yes the have attempted to broaden their palate and range. Acoustic guitars and folk melodies intertwine with the beats and strings. Unfortunately you soon realize that Beth Gibbons wouldn’t even scrape a living as a folk artist on the Bristol Pub circuit. The material on display is so pallid and clich├ęd. The Rip is awful collision of Fairport Convention and Kraftwerk, all flimsy pastoral imagery, wishful melodies and analogue synths. The hook to Machine Gun is a stunningly prosaic rhythm track. A slowed down blunted version of that kick drum pattern that powers New Orders Blue Monday, repeated over and over again.

Third starts promisingly enough. Silence rattles along on some frantic percussion and descending bass notes, the guitars spidery and inert. Portishead by number maybe, with it’s grainy film nor atmospherics but it is the stand out track. Hunter is a lacklustre folky lament with a pedestrian rhythm that is juxtaposed with a bleeping synth interlude in a failed attempt to inject some interest.

Disappointingly ordinary, you can help but feeling the alchemy that Portishead summoned up on Dummy was a fluke.

Tony Heywood ©

25 comments:

Matt said...

Don't agree - but thats the beauty of the music world, so much to choose from!

Thanks for the comment over at my place...

buenaventura said...

i can appreciate wanting to set yourself apart from the masses by trashing an album that the majority likes, but at least try and do it in coherent sentences. though it seems you put your thesaurus to good use!

christiancottingham said...
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christiancottingham said...
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christiancottingham said...

Well written and effectively argued. I don't agree, but hey...

My review's at http://mangygoats.blogspot.com/ - took me bloody ages, so please read it!

emperley3 said...

“Third” seems to be built on the instrumentals of early releases, directly following Dummy and the Numb singles, reworked and modernized. More “Theme to Kill a Dead Man” and less of their post-rock, downtempo, trip-hop that they were praised for pioneering.

“The Rip” is a written with a heavy forced hand, bland synth arpeggios and weaker drum lines. Their single, “Machine Gun” was a surprise to everyone. Possibly refreshing in contrast with the rest of the album, but no gem. “Machine Gun” sounds scarily similar to Massive Attack’s “A Prayer for England”.

If “Third” is their answer to a maturing music offering, I’ll gladly decline stay a kid.

Outatime said...

Thank you for this. I'm a huge fan of Portishead, from way back in the day, and I used to scour the Net weekly for news on when we might actually see this album.

Now I finally have it I can't think of a worse anticlimax. I'm thoroughly disappointed. It's all so bland and average - there is no stand-out material on this album.

As you point out - the magic of Dummy is gone.

robert said...

Tony-Thank you for being brave enough to express your honest opinion on this album. I have also been a huge fan of Portishead for a long time and was rather disappointed too when I listened to this album. It puzzles me to be reading such praise on this album. I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinion but I do question whether these comments I've been reading are sincere. I wanted to believe that Portishead was capable of creating another masterpiece listening to their most recent work numerous times only to find myself disappointed over and over again. My impression is that they are trying a bit too hard to distance themselves from their old sound in fear of being labeled as repetitive . I too feel that this album sound disjointed, lacking rhythm.

Jenn said...

I've given the album a few listens now and I'm really enjoying it. Having said that, I would tend to agree with your comments on the lyrical content of the album. For me, it stood out like a sore thumb on the very first listen. The lyrics are, on the whole, banal and adolescent. But I think I can forgive that...

jshoo said...

I agree that the lyrics are pretty weak in places, but her vocal style is always nice to hear. I guess I would rather hear simple ideas than trendy philosophy or politics in lyrics.

As for the change from what you and others enjoyed so much in 'Dummy', an artist is going to work with what's interesting to them. Over time that interest is going to change and evolve.

I was surprised to hear that you didn't think very highly of their second album. To me these three albums all have Portishead's personality and taste intact. Slowly they have migrated away from anything close to being considered 'Pop' music and, not that you asked, but I'm fine with that.

sorenlorenson said...

I have to agree with your review. Maybe I was expecting something more after reading the pre release stuff from Portishead, but I can't help but feel let down. Dummy was genious, but as yo say possibly fluke.

Loved your site, would you be interested in a link exchange with www.buzzinmusicblog.co.uk ?
Regards
John

Christopher said...

I believe this has been one of the most anticipated albums to date; with their success from their first 2 equally great albums and a brilliant live, album they dominated the trip-hop genre. once I listened to this album i sat dumfounded in my room at almost a catatonic state repeating to my self "this isn't Portishead" the album sounded very lo-fi and analog-ish which normally i really like, but not from Portishead. it sounded like the soundtrack from strange underground art film from the 70's. it was very unsettling. Portishead is supposed to be very jazzy, trippy and something you can just chill to. as much as i love Portishead. i did not love this album. i was so very sad to find out this is what I've waited 11 years for and i do not expect for them to release another one.
i wish this was a bad dream.

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Nicholas said...

I think the main point that most people are missing is that Portishead is never an easy listen. The fact that the album is disjointed, often dissonant and lacks coherent rhythm is kinda the point.
I feel sorry for all the folks that expected a repackaged version of Dummy.
If artists didn't grow and explore, Radiohead would still be making songs like Creep.

ankur said...

I love the music , thats all i have to say.


Emo scene layout

Hannah said...

Tony! We have a new album coming out in November, and we want to send you a blinking review copy, please! Please to send your mailing address to band@venusbogardus.com - posthaste!
Venus Bogardus
from our Long American Holiday

Lee said...
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Lee said...

Barrow is upset at having his 'songs turned into a fondue set', so you can understand him wilfully heading down an impenetrable cul-de-sac...but the album is worth a bit of effort. This ain't Morcheeba, or Dummy for that matter, it's hard work that rewards a bit of due diligence. And it contains Portishead's best ever song, 'Plastic', which, whilst containing the aforementioned adolescent lyrics, also has the best ever collision between Gibbons' mewling nightmare of a voice, the sound of a helicopter from hell and brilliant, clipped drum samples. The song is astonishing, better after every listen. Like the backing track to a sci-fi war-zone on the worst planet in the universe. That good.

JulesRules said...

i think you did totally miss the point, if you were expecting the same thing they released over 15 years ago then perhaps a little growing up is necessary. i agree with lame lyrics comment, but Beth's voice is still stupendous, after seeing them live there is no question of that. overall i like this album but i definately would not put it as background music when trying to create a chill atmosphere. This album is how art is many times, disturbing yet well crafted.

ohGrous said...

I whole-heartedly tried to listen to this album with an open mind and clean slate, but it has not won me over. I think Beth actually ruined a lot of the soundscapes for me. Musically, I can listen to the most grating to the most silky electronics, but the lyrics and delivery did not hit their mark.

jack said...

Agreed - very disappointing. Did you notice that they straight ripped off the 70's band Silver Apples on the We Carry On track? Very disingenuous indeed.

Sam I Am said...

I put the CD in my car stereo, eagerly anticipating the end of a long wait. I was dumbfoundinly disapponted the longer the CD went on. I thought the lyrics were embarassing, and it just sounded like the band was TRYING too hard, and TRYING to be "avant garde". I believe I'll be using the CD as a coaster, or I'll hang it from the trees to scare the birds from the garden. I have to recoup my $12.00 somehow. If there's a 4, I'll thorougly research prior to buying, as I still hold out hope Portishead will pull out of it. Sorry.

Tim said...

The first time I heard this I was disapointed, although it grew on me over a few listens!