Sunday Night Journal, September 3, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, September 10, 2017

52 Albums, Week 36: Dummy (Portishead)


I think I first encountered the term "trip-hop" in a description of this album. I don't remember exactly what the description said, but it was intriguing. I also don't remember if or how I managed to hear a bit of it, as this was in the late '90s or early '00s, before YouTube and various other means of sampling music online were available. (Napster was probably around, but I scorned it; it seemed little different from theft.) It seems unlikely that I would have bought it entirely unheard, but maybe I did.

At any rate I did hear it, and I did like what I heard, and I did buy it, and I did like the whole album, quite a lot. Moreover, I soon learned that I could count on the label "trip-hop" to be pretty much a guarantee that I would like the music to which the label was attached. Not that I would necessarily like the particular instance a great deal, but I would like the basic sound, the basic style, enough to listen to and enjoy even a run-of-the-mill effort. 

What is that sound? Well, the name would seem to mean "trippy hip-hop," but the relationship is a little obscure to me, since I don't know that much about hip-hop. I guess it refers at minimum to the slow-ish, smoky, shuffling beats, like those you hear a lot in rap and hip-hop, and to the use of samples. (Dummy also includes scratching, but I don't think that's typical.) "Smoky" is a good adjective in general. Trip-hop tends to be smoky, slow, mysterious, melancholy, somewhat strange, heavy on the electronics, maybe somewhat jazzy. Moody and warm female vocals are favored. Samples of old recordings sometimes give it a nostalgic or retro feel.

At any rate all of that applies to Dummy. the 1994 debut release of Portishead, a three-person group consisting of singer Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley. The album is basically a studio concoction put together by the three of them, and I think they have to bring other people on board to perform it live. Barrow is credited with various tasks involving electronics, and Utley usually with guitar and bass. The writing credits go to all three, though I think I read somewhere that Gibbons is the lyricist. 

So. A listen will be far more helpful than more verbiage from me in acquainting you with their sound, if you aren't already familiar with it. Here are the first two tracks, which are very representative of the whole, as the album is remarkably consistent in style and quality. The spy-movie-sounding guitar in "Sour Times" is a sample from an album called More Mission Impossible by Lalo Schifrin, who did the famous TV show theme music.


One more. This one is a special favorite because of the surprising and effective quotation from Jude 1:3. 

Portishead have not been very prolific. They put out a second album, just called Portishead, three years after this one. I bought it a few years ago but am embarrassed to say that I have yet to hear it. I think part of the reason is that this one album seems such a complete and perfect statement of a particular aesthetic that more almost seems superfluous. There are also a live album and, ten years later, in 2008, one called Third. And Beth Gibbons has a solo album, Out of Season (2002),which I own and have only heard once. It seemed at first hearing rather different from Portishead. I'll get back to it eventually.

I'm having trouble thinking of a lot to say about this album, but it's not for lack of enthusiasm. It's actually one of my favorite popular music recordings. As you can probably imagine if you've listened to these tracks, it's great for listening to in the dark, with a drink in hand. (I don't know, smoke might be more appropriate, but I don't do that.)

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


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Hadn't listened to this one in a while so I put it on last night. I'd forgotten how solid it is -- even the (to me) less-appealing tracks are still enjoyable.

Like you say, not all trip-hop is created equal, but it is a style I tend to like in general, so I do try to keep up with it somewhat.

Never heard of these people. I tried to listen but it wasn't doing much for me. Sorry!

Yeah, I would have guessed that this would not be your cup of tea.

I can't say I keep up with the style, but I do have several albums that fit it. I just discovered one that I'd forgotten, in fact. Back in the days when eMusic was really cheap and had a pretty good catalog, I downloaded more stuff than I could listen to, and was backing it up to cds. Recently I've been putting one of these in the car and listening to it there, which these days for me means not very often. I'm finding a certain amount of junk or mediocre stuff, but also some finds. Anyway, now playing in the car is the self-titled album by a group called Club 8, which is mostly in a trip-hop-ish vein. It'll never be my favorite album, but I just like the sound. For instance--and this one has a nice tune and lyrics, too:

Actually, Stu, you might like this track better than the Portishead ones.

You are correct, I do like that more. I had never even heard of trip-hop! Don't mean to be critical but no one was posting and I wanted to acknowledge your post in some way. :)

The first trip-hop influenced song that I can remember hitting the U.S. airwaves in a big way was Dido's "Here With Me" from 1999.

Never heard of it, only vaguely heard of her.

Nothing wrong with being critical, Stu. Tastes and all that. Any comment is interesting.

Since I wrote that previous comment I've heard most of the rest of that Club 8 album, and it's really pretty good. At least half of it is not trip-hop, just tuneful, sort of wistful pop music.

By the way is anybody planning to do a Steely Dan album? Just wondering because of all the talk about them provoked by Walter Becker's death. I'm not. They were never a favorite of mine although they are/were really good musicians.

I could certainly do one if we need one here, Mac. I have them all so it would be easy to listen for a day or two and write something. There were a few in that stack of records given to me when I was a kid that included Sgt. Pepper's and The White Album.

Not a *need* but you're certainly welcome to do one if you feel so inclined. I was just wondering. All the talk about them has made me think about listening to some of the albums that I've never heard--i.e. not the first two, to which I was seriously overexposed because I was working in a record store when they came out.

Dido was associated with a UK electronica/trip-hop collective called Faithless (her brother was one of the co-founders), but oddly enough she became popular in the U.S. well before she hit it big as a solo artist in her own country (I think her debut album came out in the States at least a year before it was released in England). Over here, on the other hand, the only people who had heard of her previously were in that relatively small group who knew Faithless.

That album, No Angel, was more pop than trip-hop, but it had enough of an electronica influence to make it somewhat more interesting than the average pop record of the period.

Citizen Steely Dan is their boxed set, four discs and all of the original albums plus one live cut with a very drunken man introducing the band. Plus I have the other two, plus the four Donald Fagen solo discs. I think Becker put out at least one, but I didn't bother to buy it.

I owned that Dido CD at some point back when it came out. I'm sure it is gone now, and I can't remember what it was like.

I like Donald Fagen's Nightfly album.

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