Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 9)
The trip-hop scene that wafted off of Bristol during the Britpop extravaganza is one of the most effective counterpoints to surface during a musical craze. Where Britpop was all about chest thumping British-ness, confidence in yourself, updating the sounds of the original British invasion, sunshine and happiness, trip hop was looking to American rap music, insecurity, the sensuous collision of quiet storm and break beats, nighttime and mystery. It never became omnipresent enough to really exhaust itself through overexposure and only produced 3 essential acts. Massive Attack and now, Portishead (We’ll get to the third later).
You can chart all three of those acts by the degrees of separation from Neneh Cherry, a chanteuse who used the success of her debut album Raw Like Sushi
to finance Massive Attack’s debut album, Blue Lines
, which featured production work from Geoff Barrow, who would write for Cherry’s sophomore album Homebrew
. Geoff Barrow met Beth Gibbons in an unemployment program in Bristol. Gibbons had been shuffling through some bands from her hometown of Devon. They performed in Barrow’s short film To Kill A Dead Man together and, most importantly, worked on the soundtrack. After receiving an artistic grant, they continued to collaborate as Portishead, signing to Go! Records mostly off the strength of the remixes Barrow had made for Primal Scream and Depeche Mode. Guitarist Adrian Utely joined shortly after their signing.
Its telling that Dummy
’s sound engineer Dave McDonald is often referred to as the bands fourth member, this is an album that creates a pinprick level of mood and tension that had to be carefully sustained from beginning to end. Each crackle of vinyl, every hollow reverberation, every sample is placed in pursuit of the most overcast atmosphere possible. If records like Dummy
are any indication then Seattle has nothing on Bristol in terms of dreariness. Barrow’s production builds groove while making sure to throw you off your balance just when you’ve gotten comfy. The hard as f*ck drum break on “Strangers” gets a brief, twinkly reprieve only to come slamming back into the mix. “Glory Box” builds its bridge to its peak then proceeds to drop into empty space only to settle right back into the first verse like nothing happened.
Beth Gibbons sings like three straight days of stabbing stomach pains aren’t keeping her from coming to the studio. Her rich contralto can play delicate (“It Could Be Sweet”) and crushingly dour (“Biscuit”) in equal measure. It’s a star performance, uniquely alluring and desperately needy all at once.
”These dreams, that pass, me by.”
Album centerpiece “It’s a Fire” rises above the smog for one brief shot at clarity. “We need to recognize mistakes” plead Gibbons, “For time and again.” Barrow builds a sparse organ and breakbeat around her stunning vocal performance, giving her all the room she needs to take the spotlight. It stays grounded, offering no answers or solutions, but it speaks to life’s one essential truth, it goes on. “So breathe on, little sister, like a fool.” It’s the album’s only moment of hope and it beams through the record like a 3-day head cold breaking one morning.
brought trip hop into the mainstream, spawning two top 20 hits, even flirting with an American breakthrough (“Sour Times” impacted the lower half of the Billboard Hot 100) and made the trio stars to those jaded by Britpop’s encroaching cheer. Nearly two decades later, Dummy
is still the perfect soundtrack to watching weed smoke curl and drift away.