Portishead are on tour at the moment, and made their first US television appearance in over a decade on Jimmy Fallon last night, where they performed "Chase the Tear" -- the single released in 2009 in support of Amnesty International -- and a version of "Mysterons". The book argues that Portishead have always been a band dedicated to sonic unrest, in spite of the perception of Dummy as easy-listening background music. Listen to the second half of this performance and you can hear that inclination rip through the song:
Isolation. Desire. Narcotic. Memory. Shock. Intimacy. Imagination. Solitude. Alienation. Consolation. Truth. Loss. Siren. Lullaby. Nostalgia. Grief. Companion. Lust. Lubricant. Hallucinogen. Essence. Temptress. Perfection. Loneliness. Seduction. Vindication. Depression. Distance. Reconciliation.
Portishead's 1994 album Dummy reassembles itself with every listen and with each listener. It becomes, cumulatively and collectively, a sequence of perfect meditations on loneliness and solitude; it carries promises of the narcotizing power of love; it serenades the anonymous consolations of the night; it rhapsodizes the unmooring influence upon the soul of unrequited and obsessive desire.
Dummy is irresistibly intimate, stylistically eclectic. A mixture of influences drawn from hip-hop, rock, jazz, folk, soul, funk, blues, and elsewhere, the album is a sparsely woven tapestry of sounds striped from their origins -- shards of lyrics, samples, gestures, surfaces, textures. It is held together only by inertia and by the force of the memories, impressions, and perceptions it provokes in the listener -- only to fall away undone and unresolved into darkness.
An entry in Continuum's 33 1/3 series, Portishead's Dummy will be published in 2011.
I'm looking for stories about this music. What were you doing when you first heard it? How did it change your life? How has listening to it changed the way that you thought about what music could do?
We live in a world where music is infinitely distributable, ubiquitous in its presence, contextless in conception and reception. Music lives and dies in a place of continuous reinterpretation by its listeners.
What does Dummy mean to you?
Nostalgia is the dominant emotion in much filmmaking about music. The primary impulse of many biopics, musicals, and documentaries is to memorialize music or musicians who have had a significant impact on the filmmaker’s life. Too often this has its own dangers: the rare biopic that does not sag with pacing problems suffers because it cannot establish any critical distance from its subject. But the mode can be uncannily beautiful — from the elegiac rhythms of, say, Clint Eastwood’s Bird, or the smoke-filled purism of Robert Altman’s Kansas City.
And a trawl of various music acts. Highlights were BC’s No Luck Club and Toronto’s Holy Fuck:
Holy Fuck are reductionists, intent on marshaling the squeals and protests of equipment designed for other purposes. At the Reverb, the audience comprised the would-be-hip and the professionally curious. It was a brilliant set, but only a few people got it. Much of the audience seemed more concerned with impressing the other people there. It was an elitist crowd, brought by the Now magazine showcase, of which Holy Fuck were the fourth act. Downstairs from the intimacy of Holy Joe’s, the Reverb has something of the church about it, and something of the thoroughfare. Its high ceilings produce great sound, showering shards of noise back to the audience along with drips of condensation from the air conditioning, a venue in which a dropped glass produces a shatter rather than a smothered crunch. But the utilitarian design — the traffic to the bar and the washrooms and the exits runs along the back — means that until an act is truly engrossing, it feels contingent. There is little to keep you there; you could be listening to another act upstairs (or downstairs, at the Kathedral) within moments, or out on the street. It does not ask anything of audience. It does not require you to commit. You have to want to be there, and you have to want to stay.
“Sunshower” has been sampled for almost 20 years now; there’s a snatch of its warped Hawaiian guitars and splintered percussion towards the end of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”, but like attempts by De La Soul and Doug E. Fresh, it’s just dressing. The appropriations always seem piecemeal and placeless: Busta Rhymes’ “Take It Off” is slick, but not convincing. Ghostface Killah’s “Ghost Showers” attempts to wholly inhabit the song; it swallows him whole. There’s simply too much in the original: swooping Hawaiian guitars, child-like chants, ambient noise, guitar barely recognizable in a flood of in reverb. The percussion is so richly syncopated, so densely layered, that it leaves Daye’s vocal somehow isolated, exposed, as if shimmering in a cloud of dust. The melody itself sounds free and ungrounded, and takes on an almost atonal quality. The groove is woodlike, organic, pulmonary. Nobody has done anything as remotely convincing, assured, or unique with the same materials. Until M.I.A.‘s “Sunshowers”.
The difference between the original and M.I.A.‘s second single, produced last year by Steve Mackey and Ross Orton, is more than one of genre or period; it is a difference in aesthetics, a difference in the place given to popular culture. The original material itself is gutted. The slightly adrenaline bliss of Davy’s chorus sounds highly phased, over-exposed, washed-out at the edges. A percussive bass glissandi, which in the original gracefully eases the song into a final elaboration of the chorus, is ripped out and looped throughout the piece. The groove is a relentless throb that hammers its way throughout the entire song, rattling and lurching between violence and grace. “Sunshowers” erases the spirit of the original as it goes along.
Where Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band brought a wispy lyricism to disco, a feeling of dreamy nostalgia wrapped in their elaborate big band arrangements, M.I.A.‘s use of the song is—like the rest of her material—a blend of hard unsentimentally and poplike glee. It’s a striking contrast: strident political stances sit alongside made-for-ringtone hooks. There’s no middle ground on Arular, her debut album. Even the wordplay is taken to a level of abstraction, with playground chants in place of intimacy and wit. There is very little that deals with the minutiae of personal relationships; even “URAQT”, a song about betrayal, revolves more around the exchange of postures than of emotions. Relationships are almost transactions. There is no trust in this music.
Update: Now picked up by AlterNet.
If any of this material feels like pastiche, it is nevertheless very well done. There is just enough hip-hop to keep things grounded: the breaks at the start of “Freedom” have a pedigree that goes back to Mantronix. The attention to period texture is particularly refreshing, given the tide of neo-jazz schlock that is increasingly upon us: Riaan Volsoo’s bass is recorded with a wonderfully acoustic rattle and throb; Kelsey Jones’s trumpet and Jon Shenoy’s sax have a up-close spittle to match the density of the arrangements. Above all, the tracks themselves have a purpose that is typically missing from the worthiness of hard-bop revivalism or the meandering of jazz-influenced hip-hop. This is a solid meal, even if you can still pick out the ingredients.
Terfry shows no sign of slowing down: a sequel to Talkin’ Honky Blues is due this year. His appeal isn’t just in the wedding of hip-hop to the American folk tradition; other artists from Beck to Timbaland have taken respectable shots into that acoustic barrel. Buck 65 is doing something more ambitious: reading a tradition of American storytelling through hip-hop. The expansive, inclusive, digressive American voice that runs through Guthrie and Dylan (and stretches back to Whitman) doesn’t sound out of place for a Canadian like Buck 65, any more than it did for Kerouac. Terfry has some of Mark Twain’s frontier nostalgia (his concert tall tales about Pythagoras’s fear of beanfields suggests a sure grasp of Twain’s sense of humor). Where he takes this ambition next will be fascinating to hear. This release is a pretty good summary of what he’s been up to so far.