Portishead meshes somber vocals and soaring strings

Portishead coined the pugnacious genre of “trip hop” with its 1994 release Dummy. Then the band left scores of angst-driven fans waiting nearly three years for the band’s next release, a solid self-titled album. With its latest release, Portishead shows how well its innovative sound translates into live performances on PNYC (Polygram), a live recording taped at Roseland Ballroom in New York City.

The perfect companion to a bitterly cold winter night, the sounds of Portishead creep and bound their way into the mind. The sound is singular and unique – Adrian Utley with deep guitar riffs, Geoff Barrow adding slow penetrating beats, samples and strings and Beth Gibbons providing pained, soaring vocals. Their cohesive sound creates the flow of a Gothic tapestry – sad and disturbing yet utterly beauteous.

Under Nick Ingman’s stunning orchestration, a 30-piece string section and five-piece horn section arranged by Barrow and Utley back the band on PNYC. The strings soar into the atmosphere of the ballroom, adding depth and drama from the opening overture of “Humming,” its presence enhancing each track with layered, polished sounds.

The rest of the band sounds tight and morose throughout the entire album. Andy Smith drops piercing turntable cuts on “Over.” “Only You” features a Pharcyde sample and horns lifted from The Pink Panther’s “Inspector Clouseau.” Utley’s guitar trades-off with funky horns on “All Mine” and wails on the rocking track “Cowboys.” Meanwhile Gibbons’ soprano complements the moodiness with bitter, anguished lyrics. Her themes vary between the sadness of lost loves, lost time, angst and desire. The crowd, anxious and curious to hear what the band has in store next, claps and cheers politely after each new song but sounds more enthusiastic during recognizable Dummy recordings.

The band does seem more understanding of the narratives and overall feeling of earlier tracks. “Glory Box” builds with lilting strings, Gibbons pleads “Give me a reason to love you/Give me a reason to be/a woman,” and the song climaxes with a wailing guitar and string combo. The hit “Sour Times” is given an angrier, edgier treatment. The tempo slowed, Gibbons’ bitterness gives way to a musical breakdown. “Strangers” ends the album with funky, up-tempo guitar riffs and drums, as the strings drift in and out for one last shimmering moment of heavy, layered sound.

Portishead juxtaposes laid-back grooves with angst-filled vocals, producing unique and passionate sound that translates well to the stage on PNYC.

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