Tag Archives: trip-hop

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.

 

Prayer for the Dying – Seal

It goes without saying that the sound of pop music in the first half of the 1990s was heterogeneous, more so than we might remember or appreciate in retrospect. Eurodance, U-rated rap, revived oldies, suvivors from the 1970s, novelty records, coffee-table soul, NME favourites, metal veterans, US indie icons, 1980s holdovers and what was not yet called adult alternative – if you look at the list of number-one singles and albums in the UK for 1990 and 1991, you’ll see all these things and more.

But few sounds are as redolent for me of the early 1990s as that of Trevor Horn producing Seal. It’s not just that Seal was a big commercial presence back then (first two albums both hitting number one and spinning off seven hit singles between them), but that Horn’s sounds were always imitated by other producers. The rhythm tracks he crafted for Seal’s second album (1994) were still being knocked off a few years later by records that purported to be “trip-hop”, and I can’t help feeling 1991’s Crazy was a huge record for Wiliam Orbit*. All of which is to say that this music sounds, and feels, very much of its era when I hear it now.

Horn was a sensible guy to go to if you wanted the George Michael money, the singer-songwriter-for-adult-professionals money. Michael was in the process of abdicating his throne at the time, and he made his respect for the young pretender explicit by covering Killer at Wembley Arena as part of the Freddie Mercury tribute concert (released on the Five Live EP – the five in question being the remaining members of Queen, plus Michael and Lisa Stansfield). Horn’s work with Seal – which speaks loudly of “quality” and of the expenses that haven’t been spared – was precision tooled for Michael’s audience. But when you listen to the music Seal put out between 1990 and 1995, it’s striking that the two best songs – the unimpeachable Adamski version of Killer and the deathless Kiss from the Rose – are either not produced by Horn or don’t sound anything like Horn. Sure, Crazy is a fine record (if overplayed in its time), but perhaps Horn did Seal more artistic harm than good (limiting him to the same relatively narrow sonic palette, or at least facilitating Seal in his more conservative instincts), however successful the pair were together.

Seal II does contain a couple of stylistic curveballs – the medieval-modal balladry of Kiss from a Rose, the Joni Mitchell duet If I Could and Fast Changes, which makes it clear exactly how big a Joni fan Seal is (with its woodwinds and strummed chords it’s a dead ringer for her For the Roses-era material) – but taken as a whole, the album is deadening. It’s expensive-sounding and glossy, but involving melodies are in short supply, and Horn can’t consistently pull out of Seal the level of which he was evidently capable.

Prayer for the Dying, the lead single, is a notable exception to all this and an unqualified success. If any of his tracks deserve a revival, it’s this one. It’s not just that it’s an excellent song, sung with passion, but it’s the track on which Horn’s production and arrangemental approaches work best with the material. On top of one of those beats that place the record immediately in the mid-1990s, Horn fills up the track with delayed guitar noodles, little snatches of percussion and unobtrusive synths. It’s far from minimlist, but nothing’s allowed to step on the vocalist’s turf.

On rediscovering the track five or so years ago (I remembered it once I’d heard it, but it had been 15 years), I was at first put off by the chorus, which seemed woolly and vague, a list of warmed-over cliches. Crossing bridges. Lessons learned. Playing with fire… We’ve heard all these before.** I was probably just having a grumpy day. Mixing an inscrutable, personal verse lyric with a more universal chorus is one of the perennial techniques of modern pop songwriting, as is adopting a cliche to subvert it or twist it. Nowadays, I think the reason the song works so well is the contrast between verse and chorus, in which I hear a shift of narrative perspective (with the first verse sung from the point of view of the dying person and the chorus from that of the younger person trying to get their head around it). Seal, as is common among, songwriters, has refused to be pinned down on what precisely it all means***, and listeners will hear it their own way, which is as it should be.

In the UK at least, Seal’s music, other than Killer, Crazy and Kiss from a Rose, seems to have faded out of cultural consciousness, while the man himself makes covers albums and a set of original songs produced by (the horror) David Foster. Seal? The singer? Was married to Heidi Klum? Oh yeah, him. Prayer for the Dying stands as a reminder of what the man could do back in his garlanded youth.

Seal

*In a neat historical curlicue, in 1991 Orbit remixed Seal’s re-recorded version of Killer. It’s pretty feeble (some of the house piano Orbit inserted clashes horribly with the vocal melody), and sounds nothing like the readily identifiable Orbit style of half a decade later.

**I’m in no position to point the finger when I have written a song called Lessons Learned.

***”It is a song about life after death and a song that was intended to help those who were dying or knew people that had died to deal with the event of death.”

Recent music by the author. Downloadable on the pay-what-you-want model. Click on the logo on the  right-hand side of the player to go to Bandcamp.

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