Another excerpt... and Portishead on Jimmy Fallon

With the Dummy book on its way to stores right now, there is another short excerpt up on the 33 1/3 blog for your reading pleasure.

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:

Back from the Printers

It's a "chunky monster" indeed. Packed to the seams with everything you need to know about mid-90s British downtempo music, massive basslines in golden age hip-hop, the relationship between funky jazz fusion and World War II bomber aircraft, and hundreds of other topics central to the proper functioning of your life.

I'm thrilled that it's publishing next to Aaron Cohen's book on Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace. That'll be a must-read.

Review of Earthling's Insomniac's Ball

I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Tim Saul for the Dummy book. Saul is a long-time collaborator of Portishead producer Geoff Barrow (with whom he co-produced 2003's outstanding McKay) and he was involved in pre-production sessions for Dummy. His insights into the production of that album were invaluable.

Saul is also, with rapper Mau, half of Earthling, whose 1995 Radar remains representative of the best of the downtempo genre before if became stylistically flattened by its own commercial viability. Seven years after the release of their second album, their third -- Insomniac's Ball -- is out and available via Bandcamp. My review is up on PopMatters this morning:

There are some stunning moments of beatcraft. The opening of “Bobby X” is as meticulous a piece of loop production as you might hear this side of hip-hop’s Golden Age. It opens with a shuddering, withdrawing, pugnacious sample: a back-drawn snare like a rasp of drawn breath, piano from the bottom and top of the register clasping the song in iron gloves. Shards of sound seem to slide past one another, assembling a beat out of near-collisions. Yet somehow Mau’s boastful lyrics—“gonna let the whole world know I’m here”—are tempered by his thrillingly idiosyncratic delivery. They are less a compilation of braggadocio and instead—“so don’t ask me about philosophies of Archimedes, my education was beat-street and graffiti”—an eminently quotable coalition of nimble charm and cheeky grace.

This was always the magic in Saul and Mau’s collaboration. Much like Barrow and Beth Gibbons in Portishead, or Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, the finest moments in downtempo were not the smooth congregation of like minds, but a rich and intoxicating marriage of contrasts.

Be sure to check out at least "Bobby X" and the gorgeous "Fly Away".

Jay Hodgson's Understanding Records

One of several great discoveries in the course of writing the 33 1/3 book on Portishead's Dummy was Jay Hodgson's wonderful Understanding Records: A Field Guide to Recording Practice. Hodgson has a talent for demystifying modern recorded sound, without ever detracting from the thrilling qualities of the music. As an example, as part of a discussion of distortion:

Reinforcement distortion does not necessarily require signal processing. Jimmy Miller, for instance, often reinforced Mick Jagger's vocals on the more energetic numbers he produced for the Rolling Stones by having Jagger or Keith Richards shout a second take, which he then buried deep in the mix. "Sympathy For The Devil," for instance, features a shouted double in the right channel throughout, though the track is faded so that it only sporadically breaches the threshold of audibility; "Street Fighting Man" offers another obvious example. "Let It Bleed" provides another example of shouted (manual) reinforcement distortion, though Miller buried the shouted reinforcement track so far back in the mix that it takes headphones and an entirely unhealthy playback volume to clearly hear. By the time Miller produced the shambolic Exile On Main Street, however, he had dispensed with such preciousness altogether: the producer regularly pumps Jagger's and Richards' shouted reinforcement tracks to an equal level with the lead-vocals on the album.

Hodgson is every bit as insightful and enthusiastic in person as he is in text. He was incredibly generous with his time and, over the course of a couple of conversations and email exchanges, helped me hear Dummy from the perspective of an audio professional, which was invaluable as I prepared to speak to Dummy and Portishead sound engineer Dave McDonald and mastering engineer Miles Showell. There are passages of my book -- particularly around the recording techniques for the album's vocals and its drum sounds -- that are informed by his insights and coloured by the questions that I only knew to ask after he had helped trained my ears.

While certainly intended for a professional audience, Understanding Records is a great read for the music enthusiast: Hodgson's writing is clear and alight with anecdotes and examples that illuminate music that you may only think you know. I'll never hear recorded music quite the same way again.