Portishead - Third Review

by Dan MacIntosh

The key to Portishead has always been Beth Gibbons' sadder-than-sad vocals. This girl could even turn the happy birthday song in to a funeral dirge. I'm almost certain that's a ukulele played throughout "Deep Water", but Hawaiians everywhere will likely listen in horror as Gibbons sings her usual blues over this normally happy-sounding stringed thing.

Gibbons may be the secret to Portishead's unique sound, but fellow trio members, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, help give the talented vocalist plenty of fertile sonic ground to sing over. For instance, "We Carry On" is driven by a guitar styling that would fit in perfectly with vintage 80s New Order music. And the rat-a-tat percussion exploding out of "Machine Gun" is the sort of firearm beat that perfectly matches its title.

Although Portishead is credited with helping popularize electronic music, this CD is far from a computer-only affair. One can pick out cello on "Silence", bassoon during "The Rip", Hurdy Gurdy within "Magic Doors", and saxophone coloring "Threads". In other words, one also finds plenty of natural elements as well.

Overall, Third is far from a quiet recording. Most of these tracks are highly percussive, with the beat way out in front of the mix. But if you're looking for a little of the manic depressive rush that earlier recordings provided, skip straight to "Small". It's like suicide in slow motion. Toward the end of the track it also goes into a groovy, 60s psychedelic sort of thing with a mad organ fills.

Lyrically, Gibbons comes off as depressed and confused as ever. She wonders during "Nylon Smile", "I'd don't what I've done to deserve you/I don't know what I'd do without you." Bono may have sung, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for," but Gibbons is still in search of that elusive something, whatever it is. But if she ever finds it, that might spell the end of Portishead; this music is all about her desperate search.

Portishead has been much-imitated over the years, as practitioners of electronic music have slowed down and quieted their sonic experiments in hopes of capturing the act's magic. But rather than trying to replicate its earlier triumphs, Third finds Portishead still stretching expectations in profound new ways.

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