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By Jesse Scheckner
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The disappearance of "real" music is a slow, daily process, barely even noticeable. CDs are purchased on the Internet, and much of the music on those CDs is sampled from old records, relics from the years when people actually played instruments. Just as often, the sounds come from computers. "Live" shows feature bands playing those computers on stage.
The distrust of manufactured music has increased in the last few years thanks to electronica outfits such as the Chemical Brothers, Orbital, and the Crystal Method. Last month the Crystal Method played at the Theater in Fort Lauderdale, transforming the place into a giant discotheque full of sweaty, gyrating bodies. Anybody actually watching the band would have been hard-pressed to describe the goings-on behind the pumped-in fog and stacked-up equipment. As electronica gains popularity, more and more critics worry that the human element of music will eventually become irrelevant.
In hindsight it seems a bit silly that Portishead, the moody band from Bristol, England, provoked the same fears and doubts when it released its debut album, Dummy, in 1994. The band's core members -- Geoff Barrows on turntables and samplers, Beth Gibbons on vocals, and Adrian Utley on guitar -- almost single-handedly created the genre of "trip-hop," a geared-down, highly stylized version of American hip-hop that incorporates film scores, jazz passages, and orchestral arrangements. Despite Gibbons' distinctly bluesy voice, Portishead's hypnotic songs struck many listeners as nothing more than prefabricated sound: recorded rhythms set on autopilot, with someone singing in the foreground. Yet no one could deny that the sound was unique.
"When we did Dummy, we were not exactly on uncharted territory, but we felt like we were doing stuff that we hadn't heard," recalls Utley, speaking from his home in Bristol. "And when we came to this second album, we felt that there were some bands that were really using our language. It's inevitable, isn't it? Everyone gets influenced by everyone else."
Portishead, however, has exerted more than its fair share of influence. In the three years that have elapsed since Dummy, countless mimicks have made their debuts: Ruby, Dubstar, the Sneaker Pimps, Hooverphonic, and Daybehavior merely top a list that's still growing. A few artists, such as Tricky and Massive Attack, were every bit as seminal as Portishead, but others -- such as the jazz-lite duo Everything but the Girl -- simply "went" trip-hop. Generic trip-hop compilations (most of which featured popular songs remixed to order by unknown DJs) glutted the market in much the same way that drum 'n' bass collections do today. For a couple of years, trip-hop looked as though it might become the new alternative rock.
"That was one of the contributing factors in us taking a long time to do it," Utley says of the band's much-anticipated new album, Portishead. "It made it more difficult for us. We felt like we needed to reinvent ourselves -- which we obviously didn't. But what we ended up doing was moving on in the way that we had started to, and I think we're all happy with what we've done."
The simple title of the new release works as a reminder to those listeners who may have forgotten what the band is all about. The trademarks that made Dummy so intriguing are also found on Portishead: ominous noises, haunting melodies, and plodding rhythms. Thanks to Barrows' ingenious method of sampling music, pressing it to vinyl, and then sampling it again, the release has the satisfyingly gritty texture of an old LP. The band's love of thematic, soundtrack-style music has grown stronger: The dramatic horns on "All Mine" and "Mourning Air" could have been pulled from an old black-and-white thriller or TV cop-show. Surprisingly, the band samples from outside sources a mere three times on this disc. Aside from an old Pink Panther film, an obscure '50s crooner, and the rap group Pharcyde, the sounds on Portishead are made by Portishead -- including violins, guitars, pianos, and percussion.
Then, of course, there's the voice of Beth Gibbons: thin, precise, and subtly anguished. Though Barrows and Utley are responsible for the overall atmosphere of the songs, Gibbons has always been Portishead's most crucial instrument. Not only does she write all her own lyrics and melodies, but she pumps warm blood into the band's otherwise chilly sound.
On Dummy, Gibbons' finest moment was "Wandering Star," a pensive ballad that interweaves verses from the book of Jude into her own lyrics. Portishead has some equally remarkable tracks; the menacing "Cowboys" and the impassioned "Only You" both stand out. Gibbons' favorite topics include treachery, deceit, loss, and regret. In other words, she sings the blues.
The 33-year-old singer has acquired a certain mystique thanks to her frail looks and delicate voice. The fact that she almost never grants interviews and lives in her hometown village of Devon (about an hour's drive away from her Bristol-based bandmates) only adds to her reputation as a reclusive artiste. "We work on the backing tracks in our studio in Bristol and send her tapes of loads of our stuff," explains Utley. "And we just phone each other up all the time. She just works on her own."
Like Gibbons, Utley also lends Portishead a human touch. Though schooled in jazz and rock guitar, Utley eventually found himself attracted to hip-hop. Sometime around 1991, while recording with a jazz band in the Coach House Studio in Bristol, Utley met Barrows, who had just landed a job as a tape operator (and tea carrier) there. Though Utley was then 33 years old and Barrows only 20, they found common ground in their love of American hip-hop and rap. Utley agreed to collaborate with Barrows and his friend Gibbons on a track called "Sour Times," which was recorded at the Coach House. The song eventually became Portishead's first single. For Utley, playing alongside samplers and turntables came naturally.
"I'd always been looking for something within jazz anyway," says Utley, now age 40. "Even though jazz is a musicianly music, if you like, I've never been interested in that technical aspect of stuff. It's always been a spiritual vibe for me. I've never been out to prove any sort of technical thing. So if it meant playing one note, it was cool with me, completely."
As a live act, it's taken some time for Portishead to find its feet. The band's earliest shows tended to be subdued, static affairs. The musicians played with almost no lighting and stood toward the back of the stage. Gibbons looked uncomfortable and only occasionally unleashed the wilder sounds in her repertoire. Utley points out that Portishead has since successfully completed long tours through America, Canada, and Europe.
"It's not as difficult as it used to be," he says. "We try and make a balance between making it sound exactly like the record, sonically and groove-wise, and making it a live experience -- without turning it into a rock band. You know what I mean? But at the same time, being experimental and interactive, and keeping it within what we do. And I think we're getting better at that."
Compared to recently arrived electronica artists such as Supersonic and Fatboy Slim, Portishead sounds positively organic. Utley points out that, in concert, the band doesn't use ADAT machines, DAT players, or samplers -- the common tools of today's digital-oriented bands. "It's all coming off instruments," he says. "We've got heaps of vintage gear."
In a sense, trip-hop sounds oddly old-fashioned now. Initially perceived as a revolutionary form of music, trip-hop actually opened the door for the frenetic, frazzled dance-music of electronica. Today, Massive Attack has all but disappeared; Tricky has moved on to explore noisier, edgier avenues; and the bevy of new trip-hop bands are mining the standard three-minute, pop-song vein. Only Portishead has remained true to the form while breathing new life into it. For a band that once seemed to herald the end of "real" music, Portishead sounds more real than ever.
Portishead performs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 20-21 at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $22. Call 305-532-0922.