Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published October 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The first time I heard Portishead's debut album, "Dummy," each song built
rapturously on the one before. Just as I was convinced that a song was
the record's pinnacle, a new, lazy, smarmy, brilliant track would play,
eclipsing the one preceding it. Maybe that's why listening to the band's eponymous second album was such a disappointment -- my hopes were way too high. As the
songs plodded by, my heart sank and my head hurt from struggling to hear
the band I adore in the dull, dark music pouring out of my stereo.

On "Dummy," singer Beth Gibbons seemed to teeter on the edge of a
breakdown. Like Billie Holiday, her voice was full of angelic ennui,
with the fault lines lurking just underneath. It was the tension that
made the album so compelling.

On the new record, Gibbons has cracked. Whereas before she seemed to
exhale the lyrics like a cloud of opium smoke, here she spits them out.
"Dummy" hinted at something frightful and dissolute, but "Portishead" could
be the soundtrack to a horror movie. The opening few seconds of
"Humming" sound like the score to a cheap haunted house flick, but
without the playful irony that made the "Halloween" samples on Massive
Attack's "Heat Miser" so darkly delightful. Instead, "Humming" comes
across as a dead-serious goth song.

Part of the hype on the new record is that the band created all their
own samples, which may explain why at times it seems like a rock record
with the beats just tacked on (there are even shrill electric guitars
on "All Mine"). I was listening to the album with a friend when he gasped, "This sounds like Grace Slick!" I hate to admit it, but he's right. There's a cheesy psychedelic rock-opera vibe to some songs, especially the dreadful "Seven Months," "Cowboys" and "Elysium." On
these songs, Gibbons hisses the vocals, and the band seems to be going
for an over-the-top noir sound with just a touch more subtlety than,
say, Bauhaus.

Despite all this, there are a few sublime moments hidden on
"Portishead." On "Dummy," Gibbons' singing was cool and detached, and she
evidently wanted to put more raw emotion into this record. She succeeds
on the undeniably gorgeous "Undenied," a restrained, heartbreaking blues
song with a mellow, muffled dub beat. "Half-Day Closing" has the spare,
narcotic sound of Portishead's debut, and it's heightened by the quiet
pain in Gibbon's voice. There is also a fantastic, molasses-slow rap on
the end of "Western Eyes" that seems to come from someone as grizzled
and burnt as Nick Cave or Tom Waits. Usually, a new album with three
good songs would be thrilling, but coming from the band that put out
"Dummy," it can't help but be a letdown.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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