Monday, April 28, 2008

Time Machine

If MySpace or Facebook had existed 10 years ago I would, without a doubt, had Portishead as one my favorite bands. So today, when I got my grubby impatient hands, on the new P album, Third, it was like the 10 long year's I'd waited hadn't existed.

Sure, a lot of bands that warmed my teenage, high school heart aren't so great these days. And there's always the fear of being that aging hipster who is still so enamoured with the good old days that it's easy to get lost in nostalgia.

There was nostalgia for a few minutes. Thoughts of the old t-shirt that was tossed out in a post-college clearing out. Of driving around past curfew with friends that have long since disappeared. But then I thought of the Smashing Pumpkins--another love back in the day. When the Pumpkins--well Billy Corgan--put out an album last year I listened to it. Once. And I never thought of it again.

Third is different. It picks up where the band left off, but doesn't imitate what made them so good the first time around. The instruments are clearer and deeper, whereas in the past they rang out with pain. Now they simply moan with it. Singer Beth Gibbons' voice stronger and more assured. The cigarettes she smoked during the taping of the live album so many years ago aging and deepening her vocal chords to new levels of emotional sexiness.

But what of a band that helped spawn a genre--trip-hop--and remained, really, only one of two popular, and good, bands of that genre. How do they go back to what they've been doing and reinvent it without bringing back the 1990's that we're all better leaving behind--well, all of us but the record industry.

First: Speed things up. Throw in some beats that are a hell of a lot faster than anything you've done before.
Second: Start the album out with some Spanish alongside the signature James Bond-groove and bust out a killer dance track for what's just about a full song length before letting your singer break in. (This should detract anyone from saying that it's Gibbons alone that makes this sound like Portishead. It sounds like them--just really fast. And the Spanish is the only indication that the vinyl is a 45, not a 33.)
Three: Cowbell, '90s Portishead probably wouldn't have used it, or would at least have distorted it so much that no one would know what it is.
Four: Toss in a cheerful little doo-wop ditty. It'll confuse the hell out of everyone.
Five: End a track abruptly in the middle of a groove that has bodies moving and go immediately into a guitar-driven whisper-like dream.

Somehow these subtle changes help cheer up the sound of the most gloom-poppy band on the planet, but not enough that they're going to be skipping through fields of daisies anytime soon.

Yes, the nostalgia is there, but the decade long wait has been so long that all expectations, at this point, are a distant memory and the album stands on its own as a much needed touch of class to an indie scene that's trying just to damn hard to be this complex, this all over the map and, frankly, this simple.