Neato Viddys on the Intertubes: Portishead

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Yesterday, news emerged that legendary (and legendarily unreliable) Bristol combo Portishead were “one day” from finishing their long-awaited third album. Could it be true? With the ‘head, one hesitates to get one’s hopes up, but just in case, perhaps this is a good time to familiarize ourselves with the band’s previous work, or remind you why you care.

While Portishead share a hometown with other so-called “trip-hop” artists Tricky and Massive Attack, their music has always been less “trippy” and technological than jazzy and, well, bleak. In a typically artsy move, the band’s first release was actually a short film, “To Kill a Dead Man,” a work that makes explicit the band’s fascination with the dark world of spies and assasins, accompanied by a soundtrack that’s both experimental and oddly retro.

Portishead – “To Kill a Dead Man” (1994)

The band’s first album, Dummy, spawned an unlikely mini-hit: “Sour Times,” a song whose lack of appearance in a James Bond film is downright criminal, although the dulcimer sound is, tellingly, sampled from the Mission: Impossible TV series.

Portishead – “Sour Times” (from Dummy, 1994)

Tellingly, “Sour Times” couldn’t even break the U.K. Top 40 until its second release: the band were too weird even for England. It took “Glory Box” to pave the way, a chilly number that echoed the cabaret era, but its mellow hip-hop beat and vinyl scratching at least gave listeners a contemporary entry point.

Portishead – “Glory Box” (live on “Nulle Part Ailleurs,” 1994)

As you can tell from that video, the band were unique among their contemporaries in the fact that they were even better live than on record. Their musicianship bordered on the obsessive: the band once described in an interview that the vinyl records the DJ was scratching with were in fact melodies composed by the band which they recorded, pressed to acetates, and then used in the performances. Psycho.

Their self-titled 1997 album both intensified and expanded upon the band’s sound, somehow becoming even more harrowing and hypnotic. Check out the Chris Cunningham-directed video for “Only You,” whose eye-popping effects were filmed underwater:

Portishead – “Only You” (from Portishead, 1997)

Eek. After another tour, excitement about the band’s live performances reached a fever pitch, culminating in the release of a live album, Roseland NYC, recorded mostly in New York, although “Sour Times” was recorded at the Warfield here in San Francisco, and if you listen closely, you can hear my jaw scraping the floor. There’s no video of that performance that I could find, but the Roseland show was put out on DVD, and the footage is awe-inspiring, showcasing the talents of each band member, with the frail-looking Beth Gibbons standing in the center, isolated.

Portishead – “Strangers” (from Roseland NYC, 1998)

After ten years, it’s hard to say what the band might have in store for us now, but no matter what, they can have my $10. And if you get wind of a tour, buy tickets even if you have to cancel a wedding or open-heart surgery.

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In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

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