23/07/2012

Third

Portishead
2008

It took me a long time to realise that Portishead didn't produce sampled-up, slowed down [tr|h]ip hop, but latter-day sixties film noir soundtracks. That's not my field of expertise but the influences are more Lee Hazelwood and Ennio Morricone than Public Enemy.

Third makes this more explicit than their previous two albums, to my ears. The atmospherics are, if anything, stronger than on Dummy and certainly colder. The album as a whole feels bleak, cold and negative.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The quality of arrangement is consistently superb, a scarcity of instrumentation emphasising the emotions and making the occasional changes more stark.

A good example is "Magic Doors", the penultimate track and probably my favourite. The verse is all on one chord, mainly drums and bass, with noodly keyboards way in the background for atmosphere. On the chorus a simple piano crashes chord changes and the contrast really highlights the melody. Then pretty much everything stops for a honking, free-form saxophone solo that seems too fraught to find itself before resolving to an almost vocal texture. Fantastic.

Other highlights include "The Rip", which wouldn't be out of place on Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man's Out Of Season. It starts off very pastoral, but I like the way that after each chorus it artificially sustains Beth's voice, the organ starts throbbing and the percussion kicks in. Very cool.

"Machine Gun", which was the first single if I remember correctly, sounds like a deliberate attempt to alienate all but the most committed listeners. It is so uncompromising, consisting mostly of a primitive, jarring drum machine and the vocal. The shame of it is that when, for the last 30 seconds, the keyboard joins in, it is vastly improved.

The sole foot wrong is "Deep Water", a faux-folky thing with a ukulele, which I could do without really, and in which Beth pretends to sing out of tune. Unnecessary.

Overall, not easy listening and only for very specific occasions, but an accomplished album all the same.

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