Dour times

Portishead creates a sad poetic sound that separates dreams from reality

It is perhaps just as well that Portishead, which was to make its American debut here April 16 at Deep Ellum Live, canceled its Dallas gig just a few days ago. The Island Records publicist explains the cancellation this way: "The band decided to play two shows in Los Angeles instead. They didn't really have a venue in Dallas locked down, anyway."

But Portishead mastermind Geoff Barrow had expressed his hesitancy about performing in America (and Texas, especially--"You do hear some weird stories about Dallas," he says) a week earlier over the phone from a recording studio in England. He feared he would make his first trip to the States and find, as he put it with great hesitancy in his voice, "Line dancing, country music, rednecks, and that kind of stuff. You know what I mean?"

"I won't be going out anywhere," said the 23-year-old Barrow of his impending tour. "I'm just going to be kind of going to bed early."

But such are the attitudes of a man whose music is distinctly British, however grounded it is in the soul and sound tracks of America circa 1955 or the hip-hop of Compton 1988. Portishead, like This Mortal Coil before them and Massive Attack afterward, is a band that's distinctly English--the product of a dank, loveless land (stereotypes go both ways, podnuh) that has also produced such glum, moody, atmospheric types as Cocteau Twins, Morrissey, the Cure, A.R. Kane, and My Bloody Valentine.

If there is, indeed, a new wave of the British invasion occurring at this moment, with such bands as Oasis and Bush and London Suede pulling up to our unguarded shores armed to the teeth with the ammunition of pop, then Portishead, riding on the success of its debut, Dummy, outclasses and outshines them all--the best reason since the Clash for the American Revolution.

The 24-year-old Barrow came of age in the dank and dreary small English town of Portishead (he now lives a few miles away in Bristol), a pasty-faced white kid who spent lots of his free time spinning records in friends' basements. He eschewed the clubs and became "one of the millions of bedroom DJs that happened in this country"--purchasing recording decks, mixing and matching records and dance beats, scratching old American soul, R&B, and jazz vinyl.

To this day, he owns relatively few albums and claims to possess the most basic knowledge of music, picking up most of his information from the British music mags and his few forays into the clubs. Though it seems an odd combination, the sound track of his youth was American hip-hop, which became the rage in England several years after its popularity exploded here. (While N.W.A., the Geto Boys, and Ice-T were just beginning to reap phat dollars wielding Uzis and hoes, white kids in England were spinning upside-down on pieces of cardboard and thrilling to the idea of breakdancing.)

"Hip-hop was kind of weird, because it was really strange for me--being a little white kiddie from Portishead," Barrow says. "That was the music for me. It's actually the truth. It was. People like Fu-Schnickens, A Tribe Called Quest, the New School, and Black Sheep. It's just kind of gone on. Now I listen to rock music, indie music, classical, whatever...any kind of music.

"But back then, I would just kind of pretty much listen to dance music and rap. I could never say that I lived the hip-hop lifestyle, because it's impossible. I would never say that I understood exactly what the lyrics were, because I didn't come from the Bronx or Los Angeles. I would never even dream I could pretend to understand what those guys had gone through. But the music was new and totally exciting.

"It's weird, isn't it? It's amazing that music can travel like that. At the time I was living in Portishead, there was two black people living there. To be absolutely honest, it's ridiculous, little towns like that. I suppose it's the same thing in the States."

If Dummy reflects Barrow's early appreciation for hip-hop, it also takes its cue from a much, much older sound--the groovy jazz of film and TV composer Lalo Schiffrin (who wrote the score for "Mission: Impossible"), the funky soul of Isaac Hayes, the fusion of Weather Report. It incorporates so many styles it manages to transcend simple definition ("trip-hop" is but one label writers use to describe Portishead, though it's no more useful than "grunge"). This is a band that both relies on technology and claims to abhor it, one that uses samples (from War's "Magic Mountain" to Johnny Ray's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again") and programmers as well as an honest-to-God string section, trumpets, and a Hammond organ.

"Because of modern technology, everything, especially music, sounds so, so clean and crisp and digital, and we've tried to go the opposite of that," Barrow says. "We've tried to capture some kind of old style of songwriting. I just think most of it is so kind of made, not real. I personally think there has been a lack of song in music for quite a while."

Portishead's is a music that's both modern and retro, as cold as death and as warm as a passionate embrace. A song like the hit single "Sour Times," which incorporates Schiffrin's music into its dirge-dance mix, works the first time or the hundredth because it's so damned unexpected. It manages to do what British rock writer Simon Reynolds once said of My Bloody Valentine--that is, it reconciles "the two great pleasures in rock today" that are seemingly at odds with each other: "the masculine pleasure of the oppressive, spine-crushing arse-quake, and the feminine bliss of dissolving, spine-melting oceanic wash."

"Some people, I think, are extremely lucky and very talented," Barrow says. "I think I've been lucky, and I don't think I'm extremely talented. I think all I've done is sat down a lot and actually thought why some people make it and some people don't. If you've heard something that's new and you think, 'Oh, I like the sound of that. I'll try that style of music,' I don't think it's really going to work. By the time you actually get it out, there's a million other bands like you...

"What I've tried to do is take the step forward in music rather than looking at what's going on. I don't believe we're doing anything new. I don't. I just think what we've done is mold our influences, which is all old music, to create something that sounds new. But if you break it down, it's not."

"Sour Times"--its video a hit in MTV's Buzz Bin and its single a constant request on pop-alternative radio--has little in common with the music currently topping the charts. It is not catchy or clichéd like Sheryl Crow or Hootie and the Blowfish; it is not loud or pissed-off like Green Day or Offspring; and it is not moldy or oldie like the Eagles and Van Halen. Rather, it is hypnotic and cathartic, both hallucinogenic and amphetamine. Dummy--which was released last August in England, in November in the States--is not too unlike Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, both sounding as though they were created in the groggy moments separating a dead sleep from a bleary-eyed awakening, when dreams are indistinguishable from reality.

If it's Barrow's music that provides the backbone to Portishead's appeal, singer-lyricist Beth Gibbons donates her very heart (or, judging from her tortured words, what's left of it) to the proceedings. Gibbons' voice weaves in and out of the album, at times buried deep in the mix, disconnected from the music; and sometimes, it's up front, piercing and soft, soulful and empty. And like Sinatra, she sings her words underneath the crushing blanket of profound sadness. "Please, could you stay a while to share my grief," she begs, "the blackness, the darkness forever."

Though Portishead's roots run deep through the basement of acid-house, theirs is not dance music; rather, it is the sound of the early morning--"when the morn meets the dew," as Gibbons sings, "and the tide is rising." When she complains that "nobody loves me," she tacks on the insistent "it's true." A former employee in a clock-making factory, she began her singing career fronting bad cover bands, mimicking the words of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick and Stevie Nicks for a few pounds a night. She joined Barrow only after he had auditioned several dozen other vocalists, never finding the right atmospheric voice to layer into his odd sonic concoction.

Gibbons and Barrow--along with engineer Dave McDonald and guitarist Adrian Utley, whom Barrow considers members of Portishead even though they are not signed to the label as members--do not write together. Rather, Barrow, Utley, and McDonald will lay down the backing tracks on a cassette, and then hand the tape to Barrow, who will hole up for several days creating the melody and penning the sad, angst-ridden words that define Portishead as much as the music.

"At that point, we can see where we go," Barrow explains, "and that's when Beth and I start working together--to take it further, to finish it off. But some of the times, it has amazed us because she comes from a totally different angle from what the music is. But it seems to fit--do you know what I mean?--which is really excellent."

In his 1990 book Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, Simon Reynolds pulled out the words of French author Helene Cixous to describe two other English bands, the Cocteau Twins and A.R. Kane. Those groups, Reynolds insisted, adhered to Cixous' notion of écriture feminine--that is, poetry that recalls "the first voice of love...a song before the Law, before the breath was split by the symbolic, reappropriated into language under the authority that separates"; these bands create, as Reynolds wrote, "song that comes before language or grammar." Five years later, no band better fits that description than Portishead.

If that seems somewhat overstated, too grand a pronouncement to make about pop music, then so be it: no matter how popular it may be, Portishead's music transcends the boundaries of pop and creates an altogether more sinister, more fragile beast. It indeed resembles poetry--the poetry of sound, the intricate melodies created as a human voice drags across a string section, and, finally, the lilting rhythm of a hip-hop beat pulsing like a broken heart.

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