Friday, November 2, 2007

[036] Dummy

Album: Dummy
Artist: Portishead
Release Date: September 1994
Label: Go! Discs/London
Producers: Portishead with Adrian Utley

"From this time, unchained,
We’re all looking at a different picture,
Through this new frame of mind,
A thousand flowers could bloom,
Move over, and give us some room."
- from "Glory Box"

In the thank you section of the liner notes for Portishead’s full-length debut, bandleader Geoff Barrow thanks “All Hip-Hop acts worldwide”. This hints at two important factors that weigh on Dummy. First is the acknowledgement that Hip-Hop, even then in 1994, is a global phenomenon, and that cats in Japan and France are probably turning out some music that’s as bangin’ as the Dirty South. Second is the respect paid to the influence that the urban culture has had on the Portishead sound. Many signifiers can be hung on Dummy, but more than anything, it is an urban record, straight up. You are not bumping this shit in the country, no way; it would even seem wrong to play when just passing through. But of course, since Hip-Hop is global, Portishead’s Bristol-bred idea of what urban might be was different from what RZA was cutting together in Shaolin, which was different from what Outkast & Goodie Mob were building in Atlanta. Barrow, following pre-PH collaborations with Massive Attack and Tricky, was constructing a dark rain cloud of a record, soft and intangible on the outside, holding some gloomy secrets on the inside that could pour down on you. Really, the blunted atmosphere wasn’t so different than the organic jazz of The Roots’ Do You Want More?!!!??!, the spacey excursions Outkast would pimp on their ATLiens album, or the Neo-Soul movement that was about to pop off, but there was a sense of melody that the Hip-Hop of the mid 90’s was largely lacking; Barrow and guitarist Adrian Utley excised the dub reggae influence of Massive Attack and Tricky because they didn’t come from the same West Indian background - compare the clean-shaven "Glory Box" with Tricky's scruffy "Hell Is Around The Corner", and consider that they're the same song. They instead filled the void with the forgotten sounds of lounge act torch songs and 60’s film scores. Of course the divide between said non-melodic Rap music and Dummy was the fact that Dummy wasn’t a Rap album at all. The “Bristol Sound” became “Trip-Hop” the second it left Bristol, but really, with they sustained mood of this particular album, Dummy was somewhat of a modern blues record; it all comes from the same place, doesn’t it?

I’d like to take a second to note that, as an obvious lover of music-related lists for pretty much the entire span of these twenty years that I’m covering, I have always been disappointed by the artists in fields of urban (read: Black) music when they are asked to pick their ten favorite albums of that year (for whatever magazine year-end issue). Almost without fail, rappers all pick their friends and maybe one token R&B record, while R&B cats usually go half & half on the R&B and Hip-Hop, with the occasional Pop record slipping in. My point is that their narrow taste in what they listen to stunts the growth of the music they make. That’s why one of the most refreshing, recent quotes was when Kanye West announced the influence that Portishead has had on his music…

"Hip-Hop never had strings that lush with drums that hard, but Portishead had that; and they sounded Hip-Hop, and people vibed to that."

Thank you, Kanye, for nailing it. Cuz when you put on “Strangers”, you get hit with one of the sickest, most filthy breakbeats of all time, and when you put on “Roads”, you get one of the most stirring string arrangements of the 90’s. The most heartbreaking of heartbreakers on Dummy, the arresting “Roads”, which is basically an update of B.B. King’s classic “The Thrill Is Gone”, floats on sparse Fender Rhodes electric piano and guitar, propping up the crumbling vocals of the one and only Beth Gibbons. Retroactively, Gibbons is rightly regarded as one of the best vocalists of her generation, but at the time the band’s detractors dismissed her as – get this – a sub-par Sade clone. One listen to “Roads” should put that to bed; her ability to communicate loss and ache with just her tone, without words even entering into the equation, is second to none. She carries many of these songs on her back; a song like “It Could Be Sweet” would be nothing without her, while she makes the spy-theme “Sour Times” her star turn. “Strangers”, the most spirited track on the album, has it all really; Gibbons’ voice is flawless, it has just the right amount of dusty crackle and hypnotizing beeps, drunken horns and piano breaks all cut up, that sweet fuzzy guitar sound that no one’s heard since Isaac Hayes did “Walk On By” in like ‘68, the beat and the bass uniting as a humming mass that, at the proper volume, can cave your chest in. “Biscuit” brings the drunken horns back with the dust again, while “Pedestal” is cut from the same cloth, with the trumpet cameo and Beth’s vocals almost getting swallowed by that same hum.

That’s what Portishead has that no one else had at the time – that hum, which comes from engineer Dave McDonald getting the bass to that level where it permeates everything. It sits in the middle while all the other sounds circles around it, brushing up against it, becoming infected by its buzz. You know immediately, on “Mysterons”, because it’s already on you. Honestly, I can’t tell if it’s Geoff’s Rhodes or Adrian’s guitar; all I know is I’m covered in it. The Moog (I think) that starts “Wandering Star” is so fat that it has a shape; you can see it if you close your eyes. Its tone is too hard to lull you, but your neck will hurt afterward from nodding, and the only breaks you get are when De La Soul gets scratched up. “Numb” shakes it up a bit, its snare sounding like a steel drum, or someone knocking on a gong. “Glory Box” closes the album on a sensual not, clearing the sound out to make way for one of the group’s best songs to be heard. Utley’s strangulated guitar work recalls Eddie Hazel on the early Funkadelic albums, while the horror movies strings and organ raises the tension for Gibbons to skate across. It’s one of their least Hip-Hop-based songs, but it’s still a highlight on one of the most imitated albums of the 90’s. With all the critical jawing over their retro sound being married to a Hip-Hop beat, maybe Dummy was actually more ahead of its time that anyone thought, because it took Kanye West ten years to put the Rap world on the bandwagon, and even Madonna took four years to borrow (sampling the “Strangers” beat on her Ray Of Light album); she’s usually right on top of the hot shit of the day to cheat off of. I guess you could argue that the sound wasn’t hard enough for Hip-Hop at the time, but I would counter with the fact that Dummy was just too good to duplicate, and that’s a rare thing in music.

01. “Mysterons”
02. “Sour Times”
03. “Strangers”
04. “It Could Be Sweet”
05. “Wandering Star”
06. “It’s A Fire”*
07. “Numb”
08. “Roads”
09. “Pedestal”
10. “Biscuit”
11. “Glory Box”
* not included on the UK version

"Mysterons" [live in NYC, 1997]

"Strangers" [live in NYC, 1997]

"Roads" [live in NYC, 1997]

"Glory Box" [live in NYC, 1997]

- BONUS: "Sour Times" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Sour Times" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "Wandering Star" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 1994]
- BONUS: "It's A Fire" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "Numb" [video]
- BONUS: "Numb" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "Roads" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "Glory Box" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Glory Box" [live at Glastonbury 1998]

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