Thursday, June 26, 2008

Third - Portishead


Mercury Records.

SCQ Rating: 82%

If my high school years were compiled onto soundtrack format, it would suck. With our social classes built insolently of jocks, nerds, and attractive girls, secondary school revolved around the typical mix of Lifehouse, Savage Garden and Backstreet Boys – all cornerstones of adolescent melodrama – while even the offbeat kids swore by Rage Against the Machine, Outkast or, unsurprisingly, Phish. Needless to say, the push of major labels remained at its pinnacle, and the closest I came to unexploited music was the Get Up Kids record I’d play at work. Being that my place of employment was a record store, I feel additionally ripped off that I was never introduced to groundbreaking artists of the late 90s; the Tortoises, the Lindstroms, the Portisheads.

The first time I heard Dummy and Portishead was 2002, a full half-decade after they’d disappeared alongside trip-hop’s collateral damage, but in the burgeoning world of online music criticism, you’d never know Portishead went missing. Quite the opposite; despite only two studio albums and a live release, Beth Gibbons and Co. were nurturing a legacy that thrived off anonymity, their albums acting as templates to a seductive, sample-heavy style that was at once perfected, then whored-out to B-class imitators who may’ve ruined the genre, but couldn’t touch the source.

As the suddenly classic story goes, ten years pass.

Third is immediate in its harsh brilliance; a brute force of dull sonic edges that meld swimmingly with expertly arranged compositions. To be entirely honest, I don’t know how they did it. Start with lead single ‘Machine Gun’, a rapid-fire percussive assault of stuttered racket that is pillowed by Gibbon’s intimate choir and the ever-changing effects of Geoff Barrow. Or take ‘Threads’, the trippy finale that envisions Portishead as a loose, psych band steering between Jefferson Airplane mysticism and their classic noir atmospherics.

To be a successful follow-up after ten years in 90s oblivion doesn’t do Third justice. That it’s heart-wrenching as often as it’s cold and industrial deserves further praise after Portishead left us to assume any new material would feel passé to our 21st Century ears. As one of Third’s many lovely ambassadors, ‘Hunter’ reminds us that any creeping melodies or smooth surfaces from their past can be inverted to show the coarse beauty of a jewel’s underbelly. The digging part is thankfully up to us, and as a decade of hesitation will prove, Portishead were wise to let these songs grow in the shadow of their past glories. Malnourished but muscular, Third is the soundtrack to a misery no sample or effect can remedy. A soundtrack that makes me miss high school that much less.

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