Tag Archives: Adrian Utley

Dummy at 25 – Portishead’s masterpiece

The first thing I heard was horror-movie Hammond organ, with an extremely present snare drum cross-stick and jazzy double bass underpinning it. Then the song seemed to turn itself inside out. There was a sampled bleating kind of noise, and a drum track so mercilessly compressed that the ride cymbal made a sucking noise, as if being played backwards, with a backeat that sounded more like a bell than anything resembling a snare drum. Then a vocal: intimate-sounding, close. “I’m ever so lost,” the singer declared. “I can’t find my way.”

The song was of course Numb, from Portishead’s Dummy. The album’s lead single, Numb made my head spin round. This sound – I had no name for it, and I still don’t think there’s a satsifactory one. Certainly not “trip-hop” – was composed of some elements I recognised (bass, scratching, vocals), others that sounded bizarre and novel to me (that tolling, sucking drum track) and an old black-and-white-movie vibe, and in total was something genuinely new. For all that Portishead were making use of analogue sounds and occasionally sampling old records, there was nothing retro or kitschy about what they did. The band was in earnest. DJ/creative mastermind Geoff Barrow and singer Beth Gibbons felt the way their songs sounded.

Portishead seemed to specialise in picking up and reusing neglected or forgotten sounds. Mysterons features a Theremin. Sour Times samples Lalo Schifrin’s The Danube Incident (a 2-minute instrumental from Mission: Impossible), which makes use of a prominent bell-like stringed instrument: there’s still debate online about whether its a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) or a Marxophone. Numb had the aforementioned Hammond organ, played on its most Gothic-sounding voicing. Roads is built around a simple, spine-tingling progression played on the Fender Rhodes, a staple of jazz-inflected balladry in the 1970s but hopelessly old-fashioned in 1994. Adrian Utley played guitar, but he was schooled in jazz, and he played cool, tremolo-soaked spy movie riffs.

A budding guitarist in thrall to distortion-saturated American rock music, I nonetheless loved Dummy and all these strange new sounds. The album was like nothing else I’d heard; even when I learned that the band came from the same town as Massive Attack and Tricky (Bristol), and that Barrow had worked as a junior engineer on Blue Lines, it still sounded entirely new and without precedent.

Those who remember Dummy coming out will know what happened next. Bottomlessly sad but undeniably chic and current sonically, Dummy was an immediate hit. It became too big for its creators to handle. Not in the sense that it was number one for weeks on end, but in its cultural omnipresence. Its songs appeared in too many TV shows, its sonics, vibe and atmosphere were copied by other, inferior bands. Some tastemakers turned on Portishead themselves, wrote them off as middlebrow, coffee-table moaners. The criticism stung, and their next record was harsher, angrier – without the warmth of songs like It Could be Sweet and Strangers that provided such effective contrast to the darker songs on Dummy.

Portishead’s debut became, then, a glorious one-off, one that no one else ever equalled and that the band themselves had no interest in recreating. Give it a spin, and you’ll find it’s more than you remember: more sad, more sweet, more lonely, more singular, more inventive, more itself. Happy birthday to a classic.

 

Kathryn Williams/Astrid Williamson @ Sydenham Arts, 15/04/16

Two artists I’ve seen play before, in the same venue, at different gigs, in 1998 and 2001 – half a lifetime ago.

Astrid Williamson I saw, billed only as Astrid, supporting the Unbelievable Truth at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre. I was, I guess, 16. I’m 34 now. I’ve written about my teenage enthusiasm for the Unbelievable Truth’s first album before; it took me up to London in the company of two schoolfriends on a Sunday night to the university I hoped to be attending 18 months later to see my first sit-down concert (as opposed to the stand-up-and-bounce-around sort of show – I’d been to several of those).

In the intervening years, I’d not thought often about Astrid Williamson, whose music struck me as pleasant but unremarkable. Back then, her label seemed to be hoping that a mix of adult-oriented songwriting with gentle beats would appeal to the Beth Orton fans. It was too limited a market, probably; it didn’t happen. Her days of being pitched to a pop audience ended.

Last night she played nothing that could really be construed as a pop song, though the market dictates that she release singles and try to get airplay. She mentioned some success she’s having with 6 Music, and the song she said is going to be her next single, Scattered, was the highlight of the set for me: a soulful piano ballad in 6/8 time with, in its recorded version, an emotionally raw vocal. I can’t see it getting much daytime airplay (frankly it’s much too raw vocally; naked to the point where the listener will turn away if unable to embrace it), but it’s a fine piece of writing, the best thing I’ve heard by her.

Headliner Kathryn Williams was promoting Little Black Numbers – her second album, and the one that brought her to wide attention through a Mercury Music Prize nomination – the last time I saw her play. Not a comfortable performer back then, she talked so much between songs that she ran out of time to get to everything on her set list. These days she’s still apt to chat nervously between songs, but in all other ways is a more accomplished performer. In the last few years she’s regained her early-career form after a few years of drift in the mid-noughties, a period unrepresented in her set on Friday; instead it was heavy on songs from Crown Electric and new album Hypoxia, with a couple of very old songs from Dog Leap Stairs and Little Black Numbers.

Hypoxia, is the result of a commission from New Writing North to write some songs inspired by Sylvia Plath, and on the evidence of those she played live, it’s a strong record, full of tangled and frequently dark emotions. Mirrors, which saw Williams, layering vocals with a loop pedal, is one of the finest songs she’s yet written. Cuckoo, a sort of centrepiece song for the record, written from the point of view of Plath’s mother, was particular affecting, although the shouty thing she did midway through the song was a little distracting (it felt too much like a conscious piece of performance to me).

What’s great from the perspective of this fan, though, is to see her taking risks, expanding her palette emotionally, musically and lyrically. I drifted away from Williams’s music in around 2003, and in retrospect it seems a response to a period in her work where she’d stopped moving forward. As I wrote here, Little Black Numbers saw a lot of the rough edges of Dog Leap Stairs being smoothed away, and this coupled with an over-reliance on stock chord sequences tended to make much of her music sound and feel similar. Over the course of Old Low Light, Relations and Over Fly Over, the lack of variation, risk and challenge in her music became palpable.

Possibly she felt the same, as after Leave to Remain (for me the third in a sequence of rather underwhelming records; fourth, if you count covers album Relations) she found new collaborators and left her long-time band behind. Which was tough on Laura Reid and David Scott (her rather excellent former cellist and guitarist), but Neil MacColl, Ed Harcourt and Adrian Utley seem, in their different ways, to have inspired her to reach beyond the comfortable and easy. Hypoxia is extremely uneasy, and reminds you that it was only familiarity that has made Dog Leap Stairs seem familiar and comfortable to me; when I was 16 or 17, it seemed boldly adult and rather unknowable, full of emotions I had no experience of, or even a name for.

I left the gig feeling like Williams’s last two albums are probably the best work she’s ever done, and that the next one may be even better. It was a lovely, intimate gig in a beautiful venue (St Bartholomew’s Church, Sydenham), and Sydenham Arts did a fantastic job bringing it all together.

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Cowboys – Portishead

In 1994, Portishead went from being cutting edge to something dangerously close to a punch line within six months. The band had formed in Bristol, a collaboration between producer and DJ Geoff Barrow, who had worked as an assistant engineer on (fellow Bristolians) Massive Attack’s seminal Blue Lines, and singer Beth Gibbons, who sang jazz and R&B in a local gigging band, augmented by a sympathetic jazz guitarist of Barrow’s acquaintance – a man called Adrian Utley, who was tired of playing Radio Two sessions and cruise ships and was looking for some music that would stretch him, that was a little meatier.

The three of them crafted an atmospheric sound, influenced as much by film noir as hip-hop (although it was very clearly a post-hip-hop construction), using scratchy and distorted samples, low-bpm beats and jazz-influenced vocals (all sung). The press soon coined a name for this new type of music: trip-hop.

Urgh.

Portishead, whose music was undeniable very stylish and modish and ‘now’, deeply resented having their emotional and heartfelt work reduced to this ghastly buzzword. They had to endure hearing their songs get co-opted by TV music supervisors everywhere. You couldn’t switch on the telly without hearing snatches of Sour Times, Glory Box or Numb used under trailers and station bumpers. Dummy soundtracked North London dinner parties every night of week. Outright imitations (Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps) started to garner hit single. Programmed or sampled drum tracks influenced by their style started to turn up on mainstream singer-songwriter records. Their music, and moreover their style of music, was dangerously over-exposed. The whole thing made the band, and particularly Geoff Barrow, ill. They lay low for a while, then purposely made a second record too dark and unfriendly to be embraced by the mainstream.

Yet for all their good intentions, that album, Portishead, was a disappointment. The black-and-white high contrast of Dummy had been replaced by an unyielding grey. Gibbons’ vocals, now unvaryingly woebegone, sounded forced, the pain and misery alluded to in her lyrics rote. The album, in the end, wasn’t actually different enough to Dummy – it just took the more melancholy elements of their sound and dispensed with the seductive melodies, the empathy and warmth, and flashes of black humour (the slowed-down Johnnie Ray sample from Biscuit, for example) that, laid over heavily compressed beats and scratchy basslines, had been so compelling three years before.

But at a show at the Roseland Ballroom in New York something alchemical happened. Joined by an orchestra of some 40 players, a keyboardist (John Baggot) and a live rhythm section to give the songs a kick up the backside, tracks that had sounded flat on the album came alive on stage. None more so than Cowboys. Utley’s grindy guitar, played down on the album version, was now way up front and in the listener’s face. Gibbons’ distorted vocal sounded more eerily Cruella de Vil-like than ever before and hardly-there drones from the orchestra hovered over the whole thing like gathering stormclouds.

Perhaps Barrow had worked on the songs for the second album too long and the spontaneity had been lost. Maybe they’d sought perfection in uniformity rather than feel. Possibly they went past the mix on some of the album’s tracks. But almost every song from the second album they played at the New York show was improved by performance (conversely, every song from Dummy was diminished – the slowed-down, bell-less reading of Sour Times was a misjudged disaster).

Taken together Portishead and the Roseland NYC live record remain a fascinating pair – neither wholly satisfying, but each enriching the other. There’s much good music on Third but the band’s masterpiece remains Dummy, a record that seems to me to be rather undervalued today, dismissed as a bit fluffy, even. Nonsense. It’s still magnificent, twenty years on.

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Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons