Portishead: The Same, Only Better

Trip-hop progenitors Portishead return with the same, only better


The cracked croon of the chanteuse half-mad from heartbreak. The looped, loping beats under the surface crackle of a 78. The disorienting match of deft turntable scratches and samples of long-gone orchestras playing ominous scores for films starring grim Italians. The air of moroseness that filled the quarter of ‘60s English popular culture unmoved by Beatlemania.  So, on first impression, lotsa people are likely to feel that the second Portishead album sounds much the same as the first Portishead album. But they’d be missing not only the point of the exercise, but a fascinating album, one that heightens all the mystery and drama in the group’s much-celebrated 1994 debut, Dummy—which won the Mercury Music Award in the U.K., sold two million copies and inadvertently spawned trip-hop—and is something of a landmark in sample-based music. As the group’s Geoff Barrow says of Portishead, “Instead of looking outside our own sound, we looked deeper in it.”

Understandably terrified at the prospect of following up a left-field success like Dummy, Barrow explains in a phone interview from New York that the group—now formally a quartet rather than the initially marketed duo, with Dummy veterans Adrian Utley and Dave McDonald joining Barrow and singer Beth Gibbons as full members—were faced with the challenge of not repeating the formula while staying true to their particular aesthetic.  They feared that their original approach would seem, in retrospect, like some kind of contrivance, rather than something that came about quite naturally, and that the band would be remodeled to adapt to the Next Hip Thing.
Barrow says he didn’t discover the material for sampling or for inspiration (anything from Lalo Schifrin’s score for The Ipcress File to late ‘60s experimental psychedelic group United States Of America) from compulsive film viewing or record collecting, at least not initially. His taste for sampling derived from a reverence for the music that first put cut-and-paste techniques into the mainstream. “All the musical styles that I listen to now all came out of hip-hop,” he says. “When you’re a listener of hip-hop and love it for what it is, then you start getting into analyzing the samples, and then it’s like you become a record collector.  And then you get into DJing and finding original breaks. Through that, you find this massive world of music that’s been sampled. You think, ‘Christ, that’s a sample of Ennio Morricone or John Barry.’ You research John Barry, and you love the music for the music, not just because it’s sampled but for the emotion it brings you.
“Then you get into people like Bob James and you get into psychedelic music. A lot of the older music for me was through listening to hip-hop, whereas in Adrian’s case it was through listening to jazz and always being into guitar music and electronic psychedelic music. And he’s always been into films and soundtracks, so when we met, it was like we both loved the same music, but we found it by completely different paths.” The timing of Dummy was impeccable. For one, the music had the sense of foreboding audiences associated with film noir and whatever elements of the genre that Quentin Tarantino’s movies were borrowing (Portishead’s short film To Kill A Dead Man screened with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in England). Dummy also came out as the lounge revival was peaking and young hipsters aspired to become miserable alcoholics in crinoline dresses, and Gibbons’ relentlessly morose crooning filled smoky spaces like nothing else on the market. And these slow moody beats—relatively dormant in the years following Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and alterna-rap experiments like Basehead’s Play With Toys—were divorced from their original context of underground black music. They became part of white pop.  But when time for the follow-up came, Barrow was in an unenviable situation. “When we started to make the next record, we were totally uncomfortable about sounding like we did,” he says, “mainly because the whole sample thing in England and Europe just went off the wall. We’d been sampling for years and been into soundtracks and massively into hip-hop, and it wasn’t because of us that all this happened, but because the time was right. Everybody began to make CDs that had 5,000 funky breaks on them.  There were reissues of soundtracks. I’m not saying it cheapened what we did but it just made it incredibly hard to sound original within that. We’re incredibly lucky in having Beth and she is 80 per cent of what we are, but the atmospheres and the vibe that we set up in the music, we felt really weird about.”
The solution was not to sample other people’s music. Instead, at great financial cost (the project went four times over budget according to Q magazine), Portishead sampled themselves. (See Appendix 1.) “Everything started with myself and Ade in the studio playing instruments,” says Barrow, “and really pushing ourselves to create a sound that at the beginning was not ours, and then had to be developed into our sound.  “We had to literally make ourselves our own huge record collection to sample from, which took about 14 months. It was incredibly exciting at times, working with the orchestra or coming up with a beat that you knew didn’t sound like someone playing drums in a small studio. It sounded like it was recorded in Abbey Road or James Brown’s studio—for me, that was like, ‘Christ, this is actually working!’ We started becoming comfortable with how we actually made music. We never made our music to be cool or trendy or whatever, we just made our music. It did well and people saw us as in this whatever style, and it buggered us for a long time.”


Barrow even went so far as to have some of that imaginary record collection made real, pressing songs onto vinyl so that he could scratch mix with them. On Portishead, you really notice the scratches because he uses them so sparingly—contrast this with the new Coldcut album, where there are so many cuts, that you don’t hear any at all.
“DJing to me has to be a creative thing,” says Barrow. “You have to complement the music. You have to create a different atmosphere through cuts. There’s no point in putting in a sound that doesn’t have anything to do with the track that you’re on. A lot of the tracks don’t have cuts and that’s because they don’t need them. I’m not a DJ trying to get on there every five minutes. I’ve definitely turned more into a producer now and understanding space. Also, a cut solo can be as fascinating as a guitar solo—it is a musical instrument, a creative art form. Someone like DJ Premier, who has got so much soul in his DJing, when I hear his cuts on a record, that’s pure emotion. It’s like he’s the Jimi Hendrix of DJs.  “There’s another side of DJing which has become incredibly popular, which is more like a competition side. I’ve got nothing against that, but I’m more from an emotional side. Cuts don’t even have to be on time. I love things that don’t quite work. It’s like when you’re a guitarist and you don’t quite hit the note but you know what it means, or when it doesn’t matter when a vocalist is out of tune. The whole acrobatic side of DJing is incredibly cool. You’ve got some talented techinical people, but I don’t want DJing to turn into Steve Vai and Slash onstage, seeing how fast they can play.”
On Portishead, the accidents sound meticulous. The group have refined a very grim, cinematic style of white English soul, and it’ll hopefully remind you why they were unique in the first place, even if you did perhaps tire a little of hearing them in every hip restaurant in the Western Hemisphere. There’s a much more complex yet more organic arrangement of sounds than in the work of copyists like Morcheeba and Olive (see Appendix 2), the songs adding up to more than just a bit of jazzy crooning over Mo’ Wax-speed beats. Gibbons curtails some of the melodrama in her singing and — in the tradition of Robert Mitchum’s handling of co-star Kirk Douglas in Jacques Torreur’s noir masterpiece Out Of The Past—underplays the scene instead of trying to climb over everything else in it. “Humming” is all spooky Theremin and high tragedy, and “Half Day Closing” incorporates a heavy, nearly psychedelic sound that puts Portishead closer to the psychedelic-cabaret style of Julie London and Brian Auger & The Trinity, and the aforementioned U.S. of A.
Song for song, Portishead cuts Dummy. What they lose in novelty value, they compensate for with quality. Alas, the audience may prefer revolutionary change to evolutionary finesse.
“It’s very rare at the moment that a band is allowed to develop over time and over albums,” says Barrow. “It used to happen all the time but now that everything moves so fast, it’s like, ‘Why didn’t you do a drum ‘n’ bass track?’ ‘What did you expect?! We’re Portishead!’ It would be massively disrespectful to the people who make it so well for us to do that. We’re not about jumping ship when it gets unfashionable.  “Having a successful record doesn’t mean that we’ll suddenly become commercial. Actually, it gives us more leeway to do what we want.”


A Primer to Self-Sampling

Besides spending 14 months recording musicians playing parts that didn’t sound like Portishead until they were sampled, messed up and then inserted in the songs, Barrow and Utley of Portishead did stuff like record a fake ‘40s-style ballad called “Hookers & Gin” so that a snippet could be put in the album closer, “Western Eyes.” These two acts—self-sampling and passing off “real” sounds (conventionally recorded musical parts, vocals and whatnot) as decontextualized “fake” ones (samples, loops, found sound)
make the context of Portishead’s songs unstable. And therefore interesting.
Although never before done to such an extent, this approach to self-pastiche has some history, albeit a mostly ugly one. Rap may have started out with the DJ making a loop from a record but even on what’s acknowledged as the first rap single, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” there’s a band faking it. The posse of musicians who would later become Tackhead perform an endless, unchanging extension of the hook in Chic’s “Good Times.”
Countless classics of early hip-hop had in-house bands doing the same, taking riffs and playing them ad infinitum for rappers to freestyle over (keep in mind that early rap singles were often well over 10 minutes in length). This was apparently a way for the producers to avoid paying the whole songwriting royalty to the writers of the original music.  Getting a musician to play the bit remains a nifty way of relieving the producer of having to deal with a sample he can’t clear. Dr. Dre mined blaxploitation soundtracks for his original G-Funk sound on his breakthrough The Chronic but he also hired musicians to play the riffs he heard on the records so as to disguise their origins.  In modern rock music, it’s easier to find the genuine fakes than the seemingly inauthentic parts. Check the fine print and you’ll see that Don Was’ crew of session musicians (Waddy Wachtel, Kenny Aronoff et al) played the majority of the new Rolling Stones album. Ditto the last Aerosmith, which went through as many sets of well-paid hands as the screenplay for Alien 3, rendering it similarly incomprehensible. And it reputedly took Green Day many months of touring to be able to play anything that sounded remotely like the contents of their breakthrough Dookie.  But that’s all fake passed off as real. More interesting is Robert Plant dropping a vintage “hey-hey-mama” and more Zeppelin samples into his late-‘80s single “Tall Cool One.” Fans who continued to listen to his records in case he magically turned into himself circa 1972 were suitably impressed. In contrast, the late-‘80s Robert Plant—middle-aged, craggy, over-aerobicized—was outed as the fake icon, the sad-assed facsimile of the young Plant at the height of his powers (in the middle of the second side of Zoso, Jimmy Page’s being in the sixth minute of “Kashmir”).  A higher-browed example of self-sample in rock is the guitarvolution of the Young Gods, who filled their first few records with a barrage of heavy metal and Stravinsky samples. On 1994’s Only Heaven, they’d reached the point where they didn’t sample anybody else’s parts—instead, they’d recorded guitar and bass sounds for months, and then sampled those parts when creating textures for songs. Likewise, Main, featuring former Loop frontman Robert Hampson, make their music with the instruments of rock music—guitar, bass, drums—but they are unrecognizable in the doomy ambient flow of the tracks. The strums and thumps and shapes are gone and only the tonalities remain.
But what of Prince, who, in the waning days of that moniker, threw fake skips and scratches all over his awful “Batdance,” which, to crib a line from Pauline Kael, sounded like it had been edited with a fork? On the next EP, “Partyman,” he included a megamix that featured more than a dozen Prince hits spliced together. It sounded not unlike the no-attention-span medleys that he liked to do in concert around the time of Lovesexy. Like the Robert Plant single, it backfired—Prince inadvertently reminded the listener of the time when the artist didn’t have to try that hard.  But the most abysmal moment in the history of self-pastiche came not very long ago. Even though it was released last year, Hooked On James Brown is an item that is perhaps already more obscure than James’ set of jazz standards (his “Strangers In The Night” remains unforgettable). Grown men have weeped at the sound of James croaking and whooping unintelligibly (even for James) along to a Stars On 45 arrangement of his hits, many of them mangled in tempo so as to fit in with the Bontempi-organ-ready drum track. Hooked On James Brown has none of the finesse of his cut-up comeback hit “The Payback” in the late ‘80s, and unlike “The Payback”—a hit in England, not America, but a hit nonetheless—this disc was authorized by James and released on his label Scotti Brothers.
Further proof that all autobiographies should be unauthorized.

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