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Rhapsody In Blue

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Portishead

Vic, April 25

The first time I listened to Howlin' Wolf's "Shake for Me" I was struck by how ragged it sounded. Not ragged in the sense of the raw emotionalism of the prewar Delta bluesmen, but ragged in the band's brawny layering of sounds. My rock aesthetic had prepared me for fiery, out-of-control solos that suddenly leap from a tightly controlled performance, but this song seemed reckless from top to bottom. Chester Burnett's singular bellow--a suffocatingly earthy cry of pure sex and booze spilling out over the song's edges--embodied unadulterated raunch. Beneath him danced the pinched walking bass of Willie Dixon, the staccato, rolling piano of Johnny Jones, the almost Latin-sounding cymbal symphony of Sam Lay, and most prominently, the slippery electric guitar of Hubert Sumlin, which refused to settle into any of the song's cracks and instead glided over them with a lick of acidity.

What had seemed like a mess became brilliant once I realized its inherent cohesion thrived on looseness. Wolf's early recordings for Sun achieved the same stunning qualities with an even more glorious gutbucket sound. Since that moment of recognition--the beauty of both imperfection and spatial dynamics in music--I've been drawn to gritty stuff. I like noise a whole lot, but I really appreciate it when someone does something interesting with it: contextualizing, reshaping, destroying it.

Hip-hop has long blended scratching and other cacophonous noise into its background beats, but only in the last few years has it become the meat on the bones. The Beastie Boys, with their exhilaratingly strident mix of rock with hip-hop, have employed lots of guitar feedback, and the perpetual digging through crates by DJs searching for rare grooves to sample often means loads of surface noise. Dub reggae records, particularly more radical ones, have celebrated swooping snatches of electronically treated sounds.

The most recent manifestation of these richer sonic landscapes, dubbed "trip-hop," is marked by a pervading spaciness and performed by disparate British bands, many of them based in Bristol, who casually blend hip-hop, dub, soul, acid jazz, and house into musical polyglots. Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky are the best known trip-hop acts, but as lesser known material on London's hot Mo' Wax label proves, the category envelops plenty of diversity. Portishead stand apart from the pack for a few reasons, but none is more obvious than the pop sensibility delivered by their distinctive vocalist Beth Gibbons.

Recent albums by Massive Attack and Tricky sport a few pop moments, most notably the former's "Protection," sung by Tracey Thorn. But most trip-hoppers are more concerned with an intoxicating blend of dance music and weird sound explorations. For example, Massive Attack have released an all-dub remix CD of their recent album Protection (Virgin), available only as an import called No Protection (Circa) on which Mad Professor, the notorious dub mixer, transforms the mild studio effort into a mind-blowing assemblage of thunderous bass, squirming, stuttering beats, and disembodied vocal cutups. For Portishead, however, the song is the thing.

The band scored a moderate hit this year with the delirious "Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)," a dark, sumptuous weave of lethargic hip-hop beats, murky guitar undulations, eerie waves of theremin, samples from Mission: Impossible, and, above all, the languorous, smoky voice of Gibbons. Geoff Barrow, Portishead's mastermind, adds 60s spy film sound tracks so that the group's music, essentially reduced to backing tracks for Gibbons's singing, is heavily tinged with a suspenseful ambience. Plenty of critics have compared her voice to Billie Holiday's, perhaps attempting to distinguish her vocals from what pop normally offers. Her voice is beautiful. Its edges are distinctly rough--perhaps from cigarettes--making her seem closer to a cabaret stylist than a jazz singer. Portishead's Chicago debut at the Vic last week found her sticking with parts originally scripted on the band's debut album Dummy (Go! Discs/London). Gibbons is a pessimistic presence; under her leadership the band's mood never transcends gorgeous depression.

Barrow's musical creations are equally bleak: an array of mechanical, funereal rhythms, brooding organ textures, melancholy strings, plodding bass, pensive guitar parts, and the occasional sample. Many of Portishead's drum loops are dirtied with the distortion of reuse, as are the bass lines, which most often are not actually played on bass; they're supplied by either organ or samples. This "accidental" noise adds appeal just as the inadequate amp sullied Willie Johnson's electric guitar on Howlin' Wolf's Sun stuff. Paired with Gibbons's vocals, they forge an unabashedly exquisite darkness. Portishead's heavy sound shares dub techniques with Massive Attack and Tricky, but Gibbons's melody lines are straight out of some 40s nightclub for manic-depressives. Her pop goods are the reason Portishead have gone over with predominantly white alternative-rock audiences--Massive Attack and Tricky are mostly African-American and don't go in for straight pop moves.

The band couldn't have accentuated their calculated cool more blatantly than they did at the Vic. Stoic under blue light all evening, Gibbons leaned on the mike stand chain-smoking and enraptured in song. The candles that filled the room added to the nightclub atmosphere already created by her chanteuse pose. To Barrow's credit Portishead came as a full band and didn't have to face the pounding destruction of subtlety most live DJ-backed hip-hop brings. The result was that they sounded cleaner live than they do on record. A drummer simulated some of the album's mechanically reproduced rhythm loops. While Dummy employs plenty of real instruments, part of its accomplishment is rooting its sound in sample technology. By the conclusion of Portishead's short set, however, the relentlessness of their mid-tempo beats and carefully restrained textures began to drag them down. Whereas most straight hip-hop explodes with uncontained energy and sinks because it can't go any higher, Portishead seemed to have the same problem many rungs down the energy ladder.

The band's final encore, however, a radically reworked "Sour Times," proved not only that Barrow has an interest in stretching their material in different directions, but that if they want to, Portishead can severely kick it. The band's performance grafted on a manic coda during which, for the first time all night, the lights went white. Gibbons was transformed into Janis Joplin thrashing about and screaming "Nobody loves me," while Portishead suddenly became a rock band as guitarist Adrian Utley churned out fat chords. It was a thrilling climax, a loud, exciting mess that delivered on trip-hop's promised diversity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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