Spin Control

May 11, 2008


Portishead, “Third” (Mercury) [3 STARS]

The collaboration of an unlikely trio of gloomy Brits—sonic wizard Geoff Barrow, jazz guitarist Adrian Utley and hypnotic chanteuse Beth Gibbons—Portishead scored the biggest commercial success of any of the bands to emerge from Northern England in the mid-’90s with the mixture of hip-hop rhythms and psychedelic ambience dubbed “trip-hop,” one of those pointlessly limiting genre constructions so beloved of English rock critics. “Trip hop died on April 29, 2008, in Portishead, North Somerset, England, after a long illness,” an addlepated reviewer recently bemoaned in Salon. “The funeral service has been released in the form of a CD by the band, titled ‘Third.’”

Nonsense. Of course artists as inventive as these or fellow travelers Tricky and Massive Attack have moved on and expanded, just as the Beastie Boys progressed from fighting for your right to party to hanging at “Paul’s Boutique,” and the genre and us are the better for it. Last heard taking a distinct wrong turn on a live album recorded with the New York Philharmonic in 1997, Portishead returns after its decade-long silence with the proper follow-up to “Dummy” (1994) and its self-titled 1997 release, and fans will be happy to hear that it’s still making party music for melancholics. But the band’s sonic palette and its mood have changed considerably.

Gone are the old spaghetti western soundtrack nods; in their place, the warm analog baths of vintage synthesizers at one extreme and beyond-minimalist folk/jazz respites at the other. Together with much more diverse industrial rhythms, it all combines to provide the soundtrack for a much edgier and more urgent kind of dark night of the soul musing: Less languid, Gibbons now also seems less worried about the state of her soul than the plight of our war-torn, environmentally trashed globe.

This does not make for easy listening, but that won’t stop baristas from playing it in their chain outlets—and the music will be all the more powerful for that irony.


HIP-HOP: The Roots, "Rising Down" (Def Jam) ¼¼¼Long hailed as the best live band in hip-hop, the Roots are different things to different listeners. They're the Bonnaroo-friendly jam band known for playing three-hour sets. They're the showcase for versatile producer and drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, who's worked with artists as diverse as D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, John Mayer and Hank Williams III, and who even mastered the shopping-mall anthem with "Birthday Girl," the new bonus track featuring Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump. But most importantly, they're the unapologetic community activists who've now crafted eight powerful, if inconsistent, albums of musically inventive, lyrically challenging hip-hop.

In the studio, the band always has suffered from the tension between commercial concerns and political convictions, and it hasn't really hit the right balance since the masterful "Things Fall Apart" in 1999. This time, having disposed of commercial worries with "Birthday Girl," the politics are more hardcore than ever, from the title (a nod to a seven-volume treatise on violence) to the album art (a Southern propaganda poster called "Negro Rule" from the 1890s) to lyrics by co-founder Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and guests including Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common that take on, among other things, black teenage nihilism, ghetto youth serving as cannon fodder, global warming and the limits of technology ("Does a computer chip have an astrology?/And when it f--- up, does it give you an apology?").

An edgy, unsettling vibe permeates most of the grooves, building to resolution with the disc-closing, emotionally uplifting "Rising Up." But as on the collective's last few albums, the mood is sometimes shattered by pointless detours -- snippets of a taped conversation railing at the group's old label or lyrical complaints about the vapidity of BET -- as well as scattered rhymes that just aren't up to the overall quality of the rest ("Between the greenhouse gasses/Mother Nature's spinning off its axis").