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Consider Bristol to be the epicenter of ‘trip-hop,’ a melting-pot genre mixing hip-hop beats, dub textures, soul singing, and electronic sampling techniques. It’s where Massive Attack first got their start as the Wild Bunch, where Tricky was born, and where Portishead (named after a nearby town) were formed when a young Geoff Barrow—born a stone’s throw west away—met singer Beth Gibbons and guitarist Adrian Utley.
Because of the eclecticism of its influences, trip-hop might be the ultimate gateway for different audiences. It was my first foray into electronic music as a rock listener, and Massive Attack and Tricky sampling Velvet Underground and the Smashing Pumpkins sweetened the deal. From Mezzanine, I eventually backtracked to Horace Andy’s discography—Horace Andy is the only voice that graces each and every single Massive Attack record—and from Andy’s masterful Dance Hall Style, I caught wind of the other dub albums that Lloyd Barnes worked on around that time, Keith Hudson’s Playing It Cool & Playing It Right and Wayne Jarrett’s Showcase Vol. 1 (not a compilation), basically three of the ten best dub albums of the 80s. Hip-hop listeners will enjoy trip-hop beats (although maybe not the rapping, which has led to some fascinatingly dumb verses on Blues Lines), and may embark on similar sonic journeys, or may end up listening to Cocteau Twins via Liz Fraser’s performance on Mezzanine, or follow Goldfrapp’s career out of trip-hop, or to Björk via Tricky, who produced two of the best songs on Post.
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I s’pose it’s possible to make great trip-hop outside of the context of Bristol, but like krautrock, it seems so location-context-dependent that I kind of doubt it. (Before you start, those early Gorillaz albums are not trip-hop. Downtempo and hip-hop, sure. It’s not the same. And though the term was first coined to describe DJ Shadow, DJ Shadow, I don’t think there’s enough trip-hop in Endtroducing… to think bucket that album or him in general under the term.) The proof is in the pudding: the best trip-hop records are by Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead; the next-best trip-hop records are by Sneaker Pimps (formed in Hartlepool), Hooverphonic (Sint-Niklaas, Belgium), and Morcheeba (London). Bristol is a major port city, and was heavily involved in the slave trade: an estimated half-a-million African slaves were abducted and brought on thousands of Bristol ships. Its affluence from the slave trade has made it among the more desirable places to live in England, but at the same time, it is also one of the most racially segregated even to this day, and so its dark history colours the music that comes out of it. And its position on the coast has made it an immigration hub, particularly from the Caribbean; hence the dub influence on so many classic trip-hop records from Bristol.
Bristol was also the home of Rip Rig + Panic, Neneh Cherry’s short-lived post-punk band from a decade prior, but Neneh Cherry would find herself involved with both Massive Attack and Portishead at those bands’ infancies; Geoff Barrows and Beth Gibbons etched out early songs in her kitchen, and Massive Attack recorded Blue Lines in her child’s bedroom.
Portishead has aged better than Massive Attack or Tricky for the simple reason that they never stooped to make any bad music; with only three studio albums (and one live album), their discography is tighter and more rewarding than that of Massive Attack’s, while Tricky stopped being able to write his way out of a paper bag. Portishead’s studio album trilogy is one that I rank higher that of Nirvana, Neu! or Harmonia, and potentially even my beloved Big Star (I ignore In Space’s existence). Here’s the guide:
The incredibly short-lived but heavy climax of “Glory Box” plays like the very last orgasm ever, and so it seems to be rather popular that this song—and Dummy as a whole—functions as good as sex music. Only people who have never had sex would think that. For one thing, it’s way too slow: unlike Maxinquaye and Mezzanine—together with Dummy, the top three trip-hop albums—there's no ‘ebb and flow’ here. Dummy is static, a molecule suspended in mid-air, nudged only by Barrow's drum programming in their lumbering old school hip-hop glory. For another thing, it’s way too dark. I don’t want to hear the torment of Gibbons’ voice, nor the unease of these samples, while having sex. The best song for sex is “4’33” by John Cage, which is to say, listen to your partner; let them be your music. (Sorry, John Cage if this upsets you: I understand you once got mad at Julius Eastman for sexualizing your music.) The second-best song for sex is “Final Countdown” but you have to time it right. To add to all this, the band is very explicit that this album should not be used for sex anyway.
In this context, the song that I love the most on the album after “Glory Box” is *drum-roll* “It Could Be Sweet,” the R&B-ish breather that I frankly haven’t heard enough praise for. (It was the one that turned Adrian Utley’s head and made him join Barrow and Gibbons.) Beth Gibbons’ vocals are a quiet croon, rising to form a perfect little arc during the chorus, “You don’t get something for nothing,” and then backing down flirtatiously to finish the thought, “Turn now / Gotta try a little harder / It could be sweet.” It could be sweet, but it probably won’t be. But in the moment, it’s hard to care. Hurt me anyways. It’s my favourite piece of melody-making throughout the entire album.
Every song is good, although no one needs “It’s a Fire,” a bonus track of sorts that was tossed into the middle of the track-list on international releases outside of Europe that’s feels too easy. “Mysterons” is the languid opener that sets the mood, and I love the mix of Utley’s slow, reverberated arpeggios against the militant drumming from Barrow; the instrumental break at the 2-minute mark plays a trick that sounds, at first, like it could be Gibbons humming it through but then reveals itself to be some horror movie theremin. “Sour Times” practically roars in by comparison before promptly slinking back into the shadows, a bassline that’s very fit for spy movies that frames that constant alarm sound. “Strangers” has that weird lo-fi section, like a faint radio transmission breaking through the dead, repeated tone that the song uses as its grooveless groove. And not mentioned enough is that Geoff Barrow’s drum beats are way more willing to go out on a limb than much of the American hip-hop that he was inspired by; the actual drum drops of “Numb,” and “Biscuit” are boom bap mixed with the industrialism of mid-90s’ Bristol, and even the scratching of “Pedestal” feels like he’s trying to imitate a scream in the night.
Perhaps bemused if not outright disgusted by Dummy’s use as background music for chillout purposes and dinner parties, Portishead gets louder and more sinister: “Cowboys” starts with an alarm blare and the thud-thud of a scared heart trying to stay calm, setting the scene for their scariest album. Meanwhile, Beth Gibbons’ tone is more accusatory and bitter; more vengeful spirit than tortured soul. Her words are less cloaked and more venomous as she eyes shady businessmen, and in my head-canon, the album practically spells out why Portishead weren’t more active in the lyrics (“Did you feed us tales of deceit / Conceal the tongues who need to speak”; “The money talks and leaves us hypnotized”). As a result, there’s less atmosphere than Dummy and it took me years to realize that’s the point.
The use of vintage microphones to capture Beth Gibbons made her voice seem as much an artifact as Barrow’s samples and horror movie theremins, like you were listening to an unearthed jazz singer from the Great Depression era. Portishead leans more into the jazz influence with the big band horns of “All Mine” to Adrian Utley’s Rhodes piano outro on “Only You.” To create more thoughtful textures, Utley and Barrow recorded themselves, pressed them into vinyl, and then sampled that, creating the haunted house piano loop of “Undenied,” which would not have had the same effect if Utley just played it straight. Selections from Dummy and Portishead are played mostly faithfully on Roseland NYC Live the following year, which would be their last album for a decade, with the notable exception of “Sour Times” which is given a rock reading. Songs are generally louder, and there’s a few flourishes here and there not present in their studio versions, but there’s not enough for me to really dwell on the album as anything more than a curiosity of how Portishead would sound live.
The appropriately-titled Third was released in 2008, over a decade after the last studio Portishead album, and instead of trying to mine the trip-hop sound that made them famous in the first place, they pivot into *drumroll* krautrock by incorporating the motorik beat invented by Neu!’s Klaus Dinger into their horror film songs. The results can be breathtaking, particularly the climax of “The Rip” where Beth Gibbons’ question, “Will I follow?” lingers in the air as her voice is looped over and over, and the dulcet nylon string arpeggios are taken over by synthetic bass and drums so that the song turns into a gallop that you wouldn’t have predicted based on the first half, with the dulcet neon guitar arpeggios and wispy theremin textures. But I remember this album most fondly of all because it houses my favourite moment in their discography in the transition between two songs: the ukulele-lead ballad about drowning “Deep Water” ends in accepting fate as your tired muscles give up and for you to be swallowed up by ocean, represented by the industrial drum loop of “Machine Gun” immediately after. It’s my default pick for best album of 2008, and yet, I also rank it lower than Dummy or Portishead, which aren’t the best albums of their respective years. That’s just how it works, sometimes. And if you’re a fan of their krautrock-driven sound, check out the non-album single “Chase the Tear” released the year after: it’s a real groover.
That’s it for Portishead. Geoff Barrow has had his name in circulation with random assists on the not-good Arcade Fire records and co-producing the soundtracks to the good Alex Garland-directed movies (i.e. not Men) with Ben Salisbury (everyone remembers the bear from Annihilation but I remember “The Alien” most of all, a thrilling soundtrack even removed from the context: I delight to hearing those alien metal squeals). In 2009, he formed the trio Beak> which mixed krautrock’s motorik beat with doom metal’s, um, doom to results that are far less enticing than they should be given Barrow’s deep love for Can, which he discovered when he heard Mark E. Smith talk the band on the radio. (I mention some of this in my Krautrock book dropping in a few months. I also talk about how there’s more to krautrock than a motorik beat as only a handful of bands ever used that drumbeat.)
In 2012, he made a full-fledged hip-hop side-project called Quakers signed onto Madlib’s Stones Throw label. Both Quakers and its sequel Quakers II play like generic producer beat-tapes where there’s a bunch of short beats and a revolving door of no-name rappers (Guilty Simpson being the biggest pull, not exactly enticing enough). Both are disappointing because considering how once deeply curious and invested in hip-hop Geoff Barrow was. I’m convinced Madlib owes MED money which is why the non-entity keeps showing up on Stones Throw releases (including being one of the few ‘true’ features on Madvillainy); mushy-mouthed Coin Locker Kid can’t enunciate a single syllable on “Get Live.” There’s a Radiohead sample for the nerds, and Dead Prez’s “That twang of the guitar / That Ravi Shankar / 12-string on the sitar / That Coltrane saxophone blowing like a cigar” is the only time I stopped the tape to replay what I heard.
On the other hand, Beth Gibbons has been far more elusive, shying away from interviews and any spotlight at all. In 2002, she released a folk album collaborating with Talk Talk’s bassist Paul Webb, working under the pseudonym Rustin Man, titled Out of Season. With Portishead, her vocals may have been the most striking component but it wasn’t any more lead than the other textures; in the example of “It Could Be Sweet,” Geoff Barrow’s drum programming is incredibly inventive for a song like that one: most other producers would’ve given Gibbons more space, but Barrow’s drums are almost just as much a lead instrument as Gibbons herself. By placing her in a folk context where she is lead, it exposes her too much; I think critics were a little over-eager to compare her to Billie Holiday. The best songs are the bookends, cooing gospel choir splashing in a bit of colour on “Mysteries” and then “Rustin Man,” all dots and loops on empty space that reminds me somewhat of Björk’s “Headphones.” Like her band-mate Adrian Utley who went into classical via a performance of Terry Riley’s In C, Gibbons appeared in 2019 on a version of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki, which has that ‘Beth Gibbons is on here!’ factor that wears off quick, but it was still a bigger surprise hearing her there than briefly on the latest Kendrick Lamar album.
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