Picture yourself in a bar. Make that a lounge – a lounge with a sultry jazz singer on a stage. It’s dimly lit, with cigarette smoke filling the air with a hazy cloud. It’s probably raining outside. It’s the 1950s; everything is in black and white, obviously. It’s noir as fuck. That’s where this album puts you. Even though color obviously hasn’t been invented yet, electronic music has. Also, you’re probably alone, hovered over your drink, because something terrible just happened. I don’t know why, but you’re sad. This is the soundtrack of despair.
Portishead is comprised of 3 people – singer Beth Gibbons, programmer/sampler/mixer Geoff Barrow, and guitarist/bassist Adrian Utley. Together they’ve crafted an ode to loneliness. To bleak, depressing, hopelessness. But that doesn’t stop it from being absolutely beautiful in every possible aspect. This album, from 1994, popularized a genre that became known as “trip hop.” It comes from Bristol and is characterized by downtempo hip-hop beats, samples, and soundscapes. It’s not easy to explain. But Portishead pioneered it, along with the group Massive Attack, whose stellar albums Blue Lines and Protection utilize the same style.
The most common association you’ll see being made with Dummy is that it sounds like a soundtrack to a film noir piece or an old school spy movie. It is actually the soundtrack to a movie, the short film To Kill a Dead Man, which was created by the band and is essentially a spy film. It is also the source of the album cover image. The spy influence is especially notable in the track “Sour Times,” which is based on a sample from Lalo Schifrin, the man behind the Mission Impossible soundtrack. This sample is one of several funk/jazz samples that can be found on the album. The beats are, for the most part, crafted by Geoff Barrow with drummer Clive Deamer. Barrow also provides most of the string arrangements and some keyboards, including the Rhodes piano. Adrian Utley plays many of the bass lines and all of the guitar effects, and Beth Gibbons is one of my all-time favorite singers.
Beth’s voice is an obvious stand-out part of the album. It’s sickly sweet at times, and she often gives the impression she’s mourning. She’s also often pleading and lamenting. She’s never aggressive – always soft and gentle (except for one part, which I’ll get to). But some of the other brilliant and equally important pieces of the album take time to reveal themselves. Multiple listens are absolutely necessary. Something new comes through in every listen, but it is clear how it all comes together to make beautiful swirling soundscapes.
The beats are slow and sometimes, quite hard; the third song, “Strangers,” begins with a Weather Report sample before dropping into a murky, heavy bass and snare beat. Then it all cuts away, to just a funky acoustic guitar lick and Gibbons’ vocals which, here, sound like they’re coming from an old radio (a technique which would later be used on “Pedestals”). This allows for maximum impact when the beat returns. This is one of the harder songs on the album. “Numb” is another hard-hitting track – featuring a drastically slowed down disco beat with a snare-less snare and turntable scratches. “Roads,” one of the clear highlights of the album, begins with haunting chords on a Rhodes piano, which then leads into a more subdued beat and spooky sweet vocals, telling us “we’ve got a war to fight.” Then, the guitar comes in, with its slow tremolo as Beth describes a “storm in the morning light.” This is followed by the string section and then, within the last 2 minutes, a funky bass line. It’s a chillingly gorgeous song, and one that I could listen to endlessly and feel all kinds of things.
I saved the best song for last. Portishead saved the best song for last too. The last track on the album, “Glory Box,” is built around a sample of “Ike’s Rap II” by Isaac Hayes, the same beat that would be used the next year on Tricky’s “Hell is Round the Corner” from the masterpiece that is Maxinquaye (Tricky was a member of Massive Attack). When the chorus comes, and Gibbons begs the listener to “give me a reason to love you,” Adrian Utley’s simple, fuzzy, dirty guitar line enters. At about 2:20, he launches into a brief yet stunning bluesy guitar solo. Within the last minute of the song, Gibbons wails to the heavens “this is the beginning of forever, and ever” which then echoes as the beat drops. Gibbons exclaims “it’s time to move over.” This is not a subdued song. This is the sound of someone who’s fed up with all the bullshit, tries to hold it in for the first 4 minutes, and then finally lets it out before returning to normal. This is the highlight of an album filled of glorious moments. Do yourself a favor, and listen to the entire thing. It will make you feel some type of way.