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Favorite 90s Albums: #8 – Portishead – “Dummy”

September 26, 2011 1 comment

 

Released in 1994, Portishead’s debut album Dummy is one of the most groundbreaking and influential albums of the decade.  Its sound — which, along with Massive Attack’s album Blue Lines was credited with inventing a downbeat electronica genre called “Trip Hop” — was relatively new, but the album is also notable for how it took disparate elements of music and made them into a cohesive whole.  On her own, singer Beth Gibbons would just be another mopey female singer-songwriter (albeit a very good one).  Her bandmates, Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow, would just be two more British guys who like sampling from their large record collection, spy soundtracks, and hip hop beats.

Together, those forces create Dummy, and it’s one of the most fully realized debut albums from any band.  Perhaps more than any other, Dummy is able to evoke a very specific feeling of setting and mood — it’s hard to listen to its gloomy electronica sounds and distinct crackling vinyl without thinking of being a sad person walking the lonely streets of some foreboding town in the middle of the night while it’s raining.

A lot of Dummy‘s acclaim is based around the fact that it helped to popularize the “trip hop” genre.  However, Portishead rejected the term, and it’s hard to blame them.  It strikes me as one of those media buzz terms for a sound that doesn’t really have an actual scene attached to it. I tend to think of Portishead’s music as far too individual and unique to be associated with a larger genre, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that their music has aged better than most of the other stuff that was being labeled as “trip hop” around that time.

First and foremost, I think of Dummy as a tour de force by singer Beth Gibbons.  It’s fairly obvious at this point that I have a deep, perhaps disturbing love of female singers.  As a result, I’ve heard a lot of them, and I’m not sure if any gives as strong of a performance as Gibbons does on Dummy.  It’s not just that her voice is amazing, but also how she is able to bend it and twist it to fit so many moods within one album.  On one song, she’ll sound like a seductress (“Numb”).  On the next, she’ll sound like she just lost her best friend and all hope for living (“Roads”).

Barrow and Utley are able to craft the perfect compliment to Gibbons’ often heartbreaking songs with a variety of instruments and samples.  Opening track “Mysterons” uses a theremin better than any song since “Good Vibrations.”  “It’s a Fire” (a personal favorite that inexplicably wasn’t on the UK release of the album) has an organ and chilly strings to back Gibbons’ lament (she sings “this life is a farce” in the chorus).

Perhaps the best track is the closer, “Glory Box”, which is certainly the most sultry song on the album.  “Give me a reason to love you/give me a reason to be a woman” Gibbons croons over a rare Adrian Utley guitar solo.  While Dummy is mostly a bleak, depressing album, it at least ends on a vaguely hopeful note (kind of).

There’s an aura of mystery surrounding Portishead that I think, in a way, makes their music even better.  Little is known of Gibbons personally, as she’s shunned most interviews and rarely speaks of any motivation regarding her lyrics.  Not knowing exactly what she’s so sad about gives the songs a more universal feeling that lends more power to her words.  The band themselves have done a good job avoiding overexposure, as they’ve released just two albums since Dummy and seem mostly non-committal about recording another any time soon.  Given the strength of Dummy and their other releases, I think I’m okay with that.

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St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”

September 7, 2011 Leave a comment

One of my favorite things in music is to hear a talented artist that finally puts the pieces together and begins to live up to their potential. On her forthcoming album “Strange Mercy”, which is currently streaming on NPR, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) does just that, and in the process asserts herself as one of the top artists in music today.

Clark’s 2009 album, “Actor”, was one of my favorites of the last few years, and it established Clark as a unique voice and talent.  Yet, it was abundantly clear that the artist behind it was capable of doing a lot better.  For one thing, despite proving on stage that she is a tremendous guitar player, “Actor” was curiously devoid of many great guitar songs, with Clark instead focusing on disney-type strings that were only occasionally punctuated by noisy guitar blasts.  The songs were well crafted and enjoyable, but also frustratingly coy and conventional for someone that could be capable of rocking souls.

My desire for St. Vincent to embrace her inner rock goddess only intensified a few weeks ago, when she did an earsplitting cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the This Band Could Be Your Life show at the Bowery Ballroom.  Rather than do a quirky, “unique” cover of the song, Clark instead opted to embrace Big Black singer Steve Albini’s misanthropic rage, and, while some may think it came off as phony, I thought she did a pretty admirable job on a song that seems really difficult to truly replicate.  It was the exact kind of thing I had been hoping to hear on “Strange Mercy.”

I am happy to report, then, that “Strange Mercy” fulfills what I wanted it to be, and I think it’s one of the best albums of the year.  In every way, I think it’s a quantum leap over “Actor” (which, again, I liked a lot).  Clark’s voice continues to develop, as she’s able to convey more emotion and sound less detached from her dense arrangements.  The lyrics are better too — still sinister like they were on “Actor”, but decidedly more personal.

Most of all though, “Strange Mercy” is weirder than “Actor”, and it’s much better off for it.  Clark continues to use strings, but rather than be the focus, they’re more of a complement to her guitar playing, which finally begins to shine on this album.  There’s funk undercurrents, like the synth solo at the end of “Surgeon”, which is one of the album’s surreal highlights.  All of the bizarre touches on “Actor” are ramped up here, and while it may drive some listeners that appreciated her poppy side (like on her first album “Marry Me”) away, I think it makes her music far more compelling.

Not that “Strange Mercy” doesn’t have its pop moments.  Lead single “Cruel” is one of the best songs of the year so far, and it showcases Clark’s unique ability to turn all of the sounds and influences into an accessible rock song.  While there are layers of strings and woodwinds, Clark’s guitar shines through with the repeated twangy riff and a couple solos in the middle and end.  It’s also one of the best music videos I’ve seen in a long time, as Clark gets literally buried by all of her domestic duties after getting kidnapped by her family.

On “Cheerleader”, maybe the most personal song Clark has ever written, she sings “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.”  That chorus, which explodes after the more delicate verses, is one of the best moments on the album, and in a truly hacky piece of music criticism, I decided that this was more than just a song about trying to stop being a pushover:  It was Clark rejecting the idea of being an indie pop princess.  Many had pegged “Strange Mercy” as a commercial breakthrough for her — and it still very well could be — but I think this music is far too weird, psychedelic, and sinister to be showing up the next iPod commercial.

My other favorite song is probably “Northern Lights”, which is the guitar song I’ve been waiting for from St. Vincent.  It’s pretty much pure noisy rock more in the vein of the Pixies or Breeders, with some roaring guitar solos and a constant build up to the end.  I think Clark could still use to sing more forcefully at times, and this one of the moments on the album where she approaches that idea more, particularly towards the end when she begins to sound more hysterical.

As good as “Strange Mercy” is, I think there’s still room for improvement for St. Vincent.  But this album proves that she’s someone who is going to follow her own muse and evolve musically, which is the most important thing to me.   Her ability to put that ambition into well crafted rock songs is a large part of what makes “Strange Mercy” one of the best, most exciting records of 2011 in my book.

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