Sunday, December 21, 2008

Portishead - Third

Third is the third (hey!) album by Portishead, one of the 90s' top trip hop bands, although from what I can tell it's not very close to what that sounds like. I don't have to be familiar with their earlier work though to know that this is one of the bleakest and most gripping albums I've heard in a while. It's one of those things you really have to listen to with headphones.

The overall sound is a sort of a downbeat industrial/electronic thing with a healthy mix of normal guitar and percussion added. Any remnants of hip hop scratching or whatever aren't there. The songs flow perfectly, with the instrumentation sparse when it needs to be and booming where required. It's another record that nails the balance of a cohesive tone while varying the sound enough to keep the songs unique and interesting. "Silence" has a quick drum beat and some dissonant feedback to play with the electronic sounds. In "Hunter", they go back and forth between the chirps and a more normal, slow guitar and drum thing. "The Rip" starts in with a plucking acoustic melody and eventually brings in quicker drums with an infectious electronic element. "Plastic" has the most obvious trip hop sound to it, I think. "We Carry On", as Pitchfork aptly mentioned, sounds a lot like a Clinic song, with its constant and off-putting beat. "Small"'s another track that bounces back and forth between styles. "Magic Doors" manages to work a piano in there along with some horns. The closer, "Threads", might be the most aggressive, with a nefarious twinge to it, and ends with a minute of a very angry sounding machine sound.

I've been ignoring one of the most important elements though, which is the vocal work by Beth Gibbons. Her voice is mournful and haunting, and fits perfectly with every track, and she sings the depressing lyrics in a very evocative, affecting way. Just look at two back to back songs, "Deep Water" and "Machine Gun", completely different musical styles, one a simple, acoustic, folksy number, the other pure minimalistic industrial with a few synth chords added in, both improved greatly by her singing. Third isn't exactly the most wonderful thing to listen to, but for what it's trying to do, it's one of the best constructed and executed works I've heard.

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