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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Portishead -- Dummy


After hearing it on good authority that I needed to listen to Portishead, I did what any computer-saavy high school senior in the late 90's would do--I used my dial-up Internet to download one of their songs. It only took six hours (this is one of the rare, Nicsperiment non-exaggerations, and it may have actually taken longer). This may seem impossible to kids who grew up in the 00's, and are used to streaming unlimited songs with one click, but if I wanted to hear ONE song, I had to download it over the course of a night. The song I downloaded that particular night was "Sour Times, off of Portishead's debut album, Dummy. at the time, and perhaps still now, the coolest song I ever heard.
I wore that long-awaited MP3 out, until I heard my local college station, KLSU, was going to air a full two-hours of Portishead music during its "Mystery Machine" program. "Mystery Machine" featured a different KLSU DJ every week, allowing each respective DJ full freedom to play two hours of music from an artist they felt was under-exposed (when I became a DJ at KLSU a couple years later, I made sure to host as many Mystery Machines as possible, hoping to do the next young impressionable kid the same favor...alas, I don't think I ever matched the one I am describing). I cassette-recorded the show, featuring music from Portishead's, at the time, only two albums, their live album, and some rare EP's...and I immediately fell in love.
This was the coolest music I had ever heard. This was right at the close of the millennium, and Portishead felt to me as if someone had collected every ghost of the 20th century, and distilled them into intoxicating, seductive, four-minute musical vignettes. 90's Portishead, particularly on their debut, Dummy, combine chopped up samples of songs from the 50's, 60's, and 70's, with hip-hop beats, big basslines, record scratches, spy guitar, haunting female vocals, and various electronic touches. I realize that even attempting to describe their music somehow commodifies it, and impossibly misrepresents it. I'll try, though:
Dummy's music is scary, it's cool, and it's darkly infectious. And yet--it's not just this. Its first two songs sound like mysterious spy themes, a dark room with brick walls, lit only by a buzzy streetlamp, but then third track, "Strangers," features a bright, bouncy coolness, even with its spectral sample subconsciously creating a strange feeling of ghosts bragging of past glories (All of these songs are ridiculously cool, so using "coolness" in this sentence was a bit redundant...but I'm sure I'll soon use it again). "It Could Be Sweet" then rides in on a big beat and bassline, backed by a chill keyboard, and vocalist, Beth Gibbons...sweetest, most inviting vocals.
Fifth track, "Wandering Star," then stomps in on another big beat and bassline, backed by an absolutely gnarly sample of War's "Magic Mountain," and Gibbons' forlorn, biblical-quoting vocals, intoning in the chorus, "Wandering stars, for whom it is reserved, the blackness, the darkness, forever." The whole thing is set to a walking tempo, as if Gibbons is stepping down a dusty road with the apocalypse softly raining down upon either side.
"Wandering Star" is followed by Dummy's most idiosyncratic track, "It's a Fire," a very quiet, determinedly resigned song that acts as a brief respite in the album's track order. Things pick back up with "Numb," featuring a creepy, yet rowdy organ, an ancient-sounding beat, and Gibbons seemingly smiling through some extremely depressing lyrics--a brilliant juxtaposition. This is followed by the incredibly somber "Roads," with a downer of a keyboard line, another beat that sounds like it has existed since the beginning of time, longing strings, and an absolutely despairing vocal by Gibbons--punctuated, and juxtaposed with a cool, spy-esque guitar line. "How can it feel this wrong?" sings Gibbons, as it becomes clear just how versatile a singer she is, how many disparate emotions her vocals can summon.
The final trio of songs are all standouts, in an album entirely composed of standouts. "Pedestal" features Dummy's biggest beat of all, and an elastic bassline, Gibbons' vocals seemingly coming from an old speaker that isn't plugged in. I'm sorry about that lousy metaphor--I just mean that she sounds like a charming ghost. "Pedestal" is punctuated by some great record scratching, and a jubilant horn solo that somehow makes the song both more fun, and more scary. This song sums up everything great about both Portishead and Dummy, creating an atmosphere that is at once relaxed and a little frightening--ancient, timeless, and new. No other band I've heard can conjure this blend of feelings.
"Biscuit" is one of Portishead's most terrifying songs, transforming a jaunty old Johnnie Ray song from the 50's into an apocalyptic, minor key nightmare, the line "I'll never fall in love again" into a world-ending event. The trumpets at the end seem to herald the coming of the beast. Or maybe I just had a bad case of the Y2K willie's the first time I heard it. It's an incredible song.
"Glory Box" closes out Dummy on an incredible high note, a triumphant resolution to get back in the game after the heavy darkness of the last track, but in the most awesome fashion possible, riding out on a buttery Isaac Hayes sample and rocking distortion by band guitarist Adrian Utley, which leaves Dummy resting on a pinnacle of cool that may never be topped. (even taller than this sentence!)..and yet, it isn't even my favorite Portishead album!

1994 Go! Beat
1. Mysterons 5:02
2. Sour Times 4:11
3. Strangers 3:55
4. It Could Be Sweet 4:16
5. Wandering Star 4:51
6. It's a Fire 3:48
7. Numb 3:54
8. Roads 5:02
9. Pedestal 3:39
10. Biscuit 5:01
11. Glory Box 5:06

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