Portishead: overrated or what?

Kraftwerk and some Dummy

I could be committing musical sacrilege for a lot of people with this question, but aren’t Portishead a bit… dull? Now, in 2008, for some reason beyond my comprehension the band are revered and marketed as influential, provocative alchemists of cracked beats and haunting emotion whose commercially motivated reunion we should all buy into with fond reminiscing and unanimous praise.

Sorry, but in the midst of this flurry of Portishead resurrection-eering, I listened to Dummy, their 1994 ‘classic’, again, and I didn’t find any timeless chronicle of spliffy, transcendent wonder, but a tame, rather boring relic of its time – as relevant to the here and now as, say, Sneaker Pimps or Jamiroquai. Its jazzy, late-night ambience and slick production – all scratched vinyl sampling, Hammer Horror FX and breathily seductive vocals – made it a mid-’90s must-have for both the white student who didn’t ‘do’ urban music but could stomach this soft dilution, and lustful couples who wanted a get-it-on soundtrack without sacrificing their cool self-perception.

No matter its functional success, there are others who genuinely believe in Dummy as one of the seminal albums of the ’90s. Before all this talk of a reunion and new album (titled Third – more proof of their boundless imagination), a former flatmate of mine once confessed that Dummy was the most prized slice of vinyl in his record collection. Where does this hushed devotion stem from? I suspect it’s more to do with what the record symbolises – 4am, post-club, passing joints with the lights down – than what it sounds like. And, as with most reunions, you just know it’s going to to be fuelled by one massive great 30-something nostalgia trip to those pre-mortgage years of sex’n’drugs abandon.

The counter-argument would be that Portishead, along with the likes of Massive Attack and Tricky, were responsible for bringing that Bristolian trip-hop scene to the masses. So what? Where did it go from there? How did it evolve? Maybe I’m just an ignorant Northerner, but where are all the exciting trip-hop artists of today?

I normally wouldn’t get so worked up by the now commonplace and frankly tedious spectacle of musical reunions (at least not enough to churn out 500 words on it!) but the impulse for this posting came from the information gleaned from the worldwide web this week that Portishead are headlining Coachella, the ‘Glastonbury of America’, in the Saturday night slot no less.

But whoa there, that is not all: Portishead are taking to the stage after Kraftwerk!

If the Coachella programmers decided this order on status and status alone (which I sincerely hope they didn’t), then they’ve got one skewered vision of the last 30 years of popular music. Kraftwerk, a band who influenced half the sonic universe with their portentous vision of a computerised, dehumanised society, driven by pioneering minimalist electro (and whose visually stunning live shows are legendary), play warm-up to Portishead, a band who made an album that was lucky enough to be adopted as the come-down soundtrack for the ecstasy generation, but which is practically devoid of urgency or originality. A band who made one further album which no-one really gave a shit about, before fading into a decade-long period of ‘hiatus’ – that music biz euphemism for having no ideas and nothing good enough to record.

I don’t get it. Someone enlighten me.



Filed under music, thoughts, etc

10 responses to “Portishead: overrated or what?

  1. OK, I will ;-)

    Dummy does sound a bit dated now. But at the time it was, with Blue Lines, a definitional record for the quite-innovative new genre of trip-hop, that for a while at least seemed like a promising new pathway (how often are proper new genres like that ‘invented’ now? Only niches like Grime and Dubstep, nothing ever bigger, but trip-hop seemed to have the potential to be a fairly huge off-shoot of hip-hop). Also, Glory Box ‘n that. Also, Beth Gibbons is an extraordinary singer.

    Anyhow, the second album which you say ‘no-one really gave a shit about’ is actually their better album (or at least it stands up better today, to “the test of time”).

    And besides – though you were not to know this back in January – Third is even better! (as you’ll know if you read my review). Third is the album of 2008, already, guaranteed. So, while I wont disagree on your Kraftwerk/Portishead line-up comments (it’s arguable either way – Kraftwerk have done little worth a dollar since about 1980), Portishead are now three records into their career, and they are 1) genre-defining hope of the decade 2) cinematic misery and 3) mechanical terror. Easily enough to almost-headline Coachella…

  2. Nick

    Trust Snr Broon to piss on my Portishead rant!

    Re: trip-hop. If anything, the failure of scenes like trip-hop just shows how categorisation of music is always something non-musical, artificial, i.e. the imposition of the music journalist, not the musician.

    Re: second album. I haven’t heard it. My observation that ‘no-one gave a shit about it’ was mostly predicated upon my own blind ignorance. Lazy journalisme, I ken.

    Re: Third. I now half-regret writing this post, because I’ve listened to Third a few times and it is much better than their previous work. However, I stick by my Dummy comments.

    How was their Coachella show, btw?

    • Goat

      No, #Portishead had no good songs on it and Third is a terrible album – it has flaws on every track, not all as obvious as the track that just cuts off unfinished! Only one or two good tunes, with Machine Gun being the only memorable track with a hook.
      If you read up on the production of Third the band admit it themselves that they couldn’t face repeating the perfectionism of the Dummy production. Instead it was finally rush-produced in a deliberately haphazard way just to get it made. They were even playing instruments they could barely play, just to deliberately accept the imperfections. There are glaring flaws on every Third track.
      I sympathise with them as it’s not just about hard work – if you’ve run out of great tunes, as all artists do, you might as well just get anything released. I also can understand the fear of starting a production of anything when you’re a perfectionist – you fear the OCD perfectionism so much that you don’t want to even begin, so just starting and letting it be imperfect is a lot easier, albeit, a cop-out.

  3. Vinny

    I have to agree. Portishead are boring, pretentious, derivative, dated, overstated, neurosal (not a real word but it fits). The initial draw was novelty value, hence it doesn’t last. There is no actual nourishment in the music, it is not even self-indulgent because it is over-considered.

    • Ray Hoo

      This may be an old comment that i’m answering to but it is on a public comment blog or whatever & the world can still see it … SO…Vinny ! Take a look at your words now. Anal. Do you produce music ?

  4. I’d take Kraftwerk any day over this unfocused, pretentious drivel called Portishead.
    Oh…btw–to the reviewer who said that Kraftwerk hasn’t done anything good since 1980…I guess you never heard 1986’s “Electric Cafe”. For me their best album ever.


  5. Terminal Blox

    When i saw the bbc footage of portishead at 2013 glastonbury i was mesmerised & for me they were THE performance of the festival. It switched me back on to this band. I can see how important they are !
    What struck me was how they properly interacted as a real band. Never once was there any sign of heroism & they stayed solid & true to their unique sound throughout. This was a taste of quality of high order. What they do is deliberate & they do it brilliantly. Very much respect to them among a sea of trashy music where they shine.through.
    There are other bands/acts out there who have put out limited material & that’s because the emphasis is on quality ,not quantity. Leave ’em wanting more & don’t cave in to the commercial cheap seats ! Big up Portishead…Look forward to a forth album though !

  6. Fredd

    Portishead are talented, but boring. Though they are famous for being the face of the “trip-hop” sound, (a sound that is extremely dated in itself) Portishead are certainly more of a relic of the 90s after-hours scene than a band that will stand the test of time. (Good shit to come off a high, maybe. ?)

    Their live show is their most redeeming aspect. Incredibly intimate. Truly, the only time many people listen to their first couple of albums (haven’t heard the others, don’t care to) is when “background noise” may be beneficial; i.e. chopping veggies, doing dishes, or taxes, taking a constipated shit, and the like. The trip-hop trip drone sees you through your journey like a in-flight magazine. Boring, but company for those that need it.

  7. KG

    Portishead will be one of those music acts that no matter what they put out and how long they’re around for they’ll always be labelled the band that did “Dummy” in 1994. This always reminds of me of Gary Numan with his album “The Pleasure Principle” in 1979, in a nearly 40 year career that album is still his crowning glory with his cult hardcore loyal fanbase. So like Numan being filed as a “late 70’s novelty act” by his detractors Portishead will probably be filed as “mid 90’s novelty act”.

  8. Goat

    #Dummy was, and still is, a classic album – and their only good one. It has nothing to do with the times or environment it was listened to in.
    It’s simply a superb production of songs with good tunes, of a similar style, with no fillers – which should be anyone’s understanding of what makes a good album.
    If it seems boring it’s because it’s easy-listening – it is NOT #ExitPlanetDust.
    The follow-up albums were weak, haphazard productions, with eclectic styles and few good tunes – hence they were not good albums.
    Portishead couldn’t face trying to match the perfectionism of the Dummy production and so #Third, especially, was made with minimal stress and effort. As a result, #MachineGun was the only track with any kind of hook and every song on the album was flawed – one even just ends mid-note to dead air!
    There are better albums than Dummy, but not many better in such an easy-listening style. FYI.

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