Portishead Take It To The Brink (But Hold Back)

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ARTIST: PortisheadTITLE: 3RELEASE DATE: April 14, 2008WEB DEBUT: March 6, 2008

ONE-LISTEN VERDICT: On 3 Portishead have achieved something many freshly invigorated bands shoot for and miss after they’ve recovered from their sophomore slump (even if it took them longer than most to bounce back): a wide-ranging album that’s still comfortingly familiar, the gloomy gamine you initially fell for now sporting a few seemingly out-of-character frocks. Many of Portishead’s new tracks could never be mistaken for the work of their blunted copyists, the spawn of a sound as unfortunately pernicious as the Vedder yarl or Brian Setzer’s love of the greatest generation. (Not the Bristolians’ fault, obviously.) But Beth Gibbons’ inimitably lovesickened voice and the band’s permanent frown mean old fans won’t be worrying they downloaded the wrong album. And though some might gripe the trio is stuck in a moody rut, really, who was waiting for the first sunny entry in the Portishead discography?

That said–and it’s not entirely surprising if you’ve been following the group’s individual breadcrumb trails during its long downtime–there are a few overtures toward the pastoral on 3 like “Deep Water,” a sketch for banjo and a murmuring Gibbons playing drowsy English folk princess chilling lakeside rather than dread soul siren cruising noir cityscapes. That said, “Deep Water” is followed by “Machine Gun,” which ditches the crackling turntable loops of old for grimy, staccato electro rhythms that shoot holes in the walls of your chill out room. Nothing on 3 is as violent as the band’s been hinting during the album’s long, on-stage coming out party, but it’s certainly raw and uneasy, often in unexpected ways.

The Krautrock tinge I heard when the band debuted several new tunes at All Tomorrow’s Parties is only an intermittent influence on 3, though the motorik break/bass combo on “Silence” is such an Ege Bamyasi dead-ringer that even a seasoned sonic pasticheur (and Can fan) like James Murphy would blush, and the beat on “Nylon Smile” has a certain tribal quality that makes me think of hirsute experimental rockers of indeterminate nationality.

But here’s where these one-listen verdicts become unfair to pop-unfriendly albums not designed to reveal the rightness/wrongness of their shape on first (or fourth, in this case) spin: despite digging the band’s expanded vision, my initial reaction was actually a slight disappointment that they held back from pushing entirely past the Portishead of “Sour Times” and into the 21st-century sound 3 approaches in its best moments. (Even if that “21st-century” sound is ironically rooted in the ’70s and ’80s.) And yet while the rhythmic rewrites are the album’s most welcome development, there are plenty of tweaks to the group’s well-worn groove, the kind of subtleties that take longer to sink in (or even notice). The trudging “Hunter” moves likes the Portishead’s old bad trips, but the creepy library record synths are new, as is the guitar that spins pensive spiderwebs not dissimilar to (Gibbons faves) Talk Talk or that old Slint black magic. In a few months, even 3‘s throwbacks will likely prove seductive for reasons beyond ’90s nostalgia.