CD Review of Third by Portishead
Recommended if you like
Massive Attack, Beth Orton, Bjork
Portishead: Third

Reviewed by Michael Fortes


hen trip-hop was hot in the mid ‘90s, Portishead stood out – and still stands out, for a number of reasons. For one, their relatively conservative attire gave them a touch of class. Frequently drawing on jazz and lounge sounds in a non-ironic way, without ever employing rappers or sprinkling their records with instrumentals, added further to their cool image. But perhaps most integral to the band’s constant allure is singer Beth Gibbons, and the fact that she is the band’s lone vocalist on every track. This is one thing we can always count on.

And, after an 11-year wait of Guns n’ Roses proportions between studio albums, it appears the voice of Gibbons is the only constant one can count on when listening to Third. The album title may be a drab disappointment, and the cover art may be little more than child’s play, but Gibbons is in full, smooth glory. Gone are her occasional slips into a cackle that added to the hard-hitting smack and extra crackle of the group’s second, self-titled album. No, this time she sings it straight throughout, and it’s wonderful to hear her again.


As for the rest of the band, guitarist Adrian Utley and keyboardist Geoff Barrow could be making the case that either trip-hop is dead, that it’s something else entirely in 2008, or that they never really fit that description to begin with. Aside from a second or two on lead single “Machine Gun,” there are no scratchy vinyl record sound effects to be heard at all, nor any turntable scratching, anywhere on the disc. It is indeed a new day, for not only that, the drum beats employed have more bottom than before. Distorted electric guitars and primitive organ sounds lend a pseudo-garage feel to “Silence,” while a primitive industrial vibe pervades “Carry On.” The second half of “The Rip” could easily be a current Radiohead song if Thom Yorke re-recorded the vocal.

Vintage Syd Barrett-era psychedelia even creeps into the second half of “Small,” with its echoing guitars and creepy farfisa, while a James Brown-inspired funk beat (with cowbell!) is slowed down to a measured jitter in “Magic Doors.” On the other end of the spectrum, “Deep Water” is the most extreme dress-down of the band in evidence – Gibbons is accompanied only by a ukulele and occasional (probably sampled) background vocals, singing in a shaky warble, a la Moe Tucker or Meg White.

The songs themselves, as constructions, are left open-ended for most of the first half of the record, fading out unresolved on “The Rip” and “Hunter,” or abruptly cutting off in “Small” and, even more dramatically, in “Silence.” And as always, sad bastard lyrics are the order of the day, and few can flatter them as well as Gibbons. Representative sample, from “Nylon Smile”: “I’d like to laugh at what you said / But I just can’t find a smile.” That about says it all. Which suits them just fine. The music of Portishead was never made for shiny happy people. Take comfort in knowing that their songs are dour as ever, and ever beautiful for it.

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