I still remember the first time I heard this. I was at my friend Pinky’s house (who also plays a starring role in the White Pony review a bit or so back) and we were on the beer (as usual). Music was playing and conversation was flowing. Pinky suddenly decides to change the music and on comes Dummy. I’d not heard anything like this before and my ears instantly pricked up. Conversation seemed to lower in volume and the topic turned to this album. I was hooked. The whole album just seemed to fit that moment. Cigarette smoke (not mine!) floated through the air and the mood was set.
I obtained a copy of this album pretty quickly and gave it a listen. The first time was no fluke, the second time listening to this (sober this time) was just as good. Numerous spins, and here it is in my top ten.
Along with Massive Attack, Portishead are generally generally regarded the other big name in trip hop scene that came out of Bristol in the 90’s. They aren’t a band who go for the jugular, instead they are all about the mood. On this album they absolutely nail it and this really is a perfect example of the “less is more” school of thought. It’s quite amazing how much people love this album when it only consists of understated hip hop production and vocals. But, when your vocalist is Beth Gibbons you don’t need a lot else. Her voice is so striking, yet so fragile and vulnerable. It draws you in and sets this album apart from others. It sounds like she’s putting everything all her emotion into every word and it hits you.
Such a delicate voice demands special care. It can’t be drowned out in a wall of noise. Up steps the trip hop production, but rather than bury those fantastic vocals it compliments them perfectly. Understated is the word here, with ambient electronics, subtle strings and even a little jazz combining with hip hop drum beats to create a somber backdrop which allows Gibbons to flourish. Fantastic a backdrop it is as well, some of this production sounds like it’s come straight from a strange dream.
Combine these two elements and you have the perfect “moody” album. I picture this being played in some cool low-light bar/club with only a few people in it while white smoke floats through the air. Not sure why I associate smoke so much with this record, maybe it’s the somewhat “floaty” nature of these songs! Anyway, listen and let this take your breath away.
Personal Fave Track: “Mysterons”