Ah, trip-hop. It was so mid-90s, wasn’t it? That melange of moodiness set to atmospheric samples, created and popularized (if the genre was ever really popular) by Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead.
Trip-hop grew out of a fertile DJ scene in Bristol, UK, specifically The Wild Bunch collective. Massive Attack (Robert Del Naja and Grantley Marshall) broke first with their debut, Blue Lines, but that seminal release was really a family affair: Tricky contributed vocals, Nellee Hooper produced, and Geoff Barrow assisted with keyboard programming.
It was around this time in 1991 that Barrow met vocalist Beth Gibbons, and together with jazz guitarist Adrian Utley, they formed Portishead. In 1994, the trio released its debut disc, Dummy, a distinctive take on trip-hop’s downtempo sound, thanks to Beth’s unique voice and some inventive sampling of ’60s and ’70s-era records.
The first U.S. single, “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me),” was a brooding masterpiece that seemed to be beamed from an earlier time and place. After successfully wrangling a promo copy of Dummy from the PolyGram Records rep visiting my college radio station, I had “Sour Times” on InfiniteRepeat™ for weeks:
Notoriously press-shy, Portishead retreated from the glare of glowing reviews and music industry accolades to work on the follow-up to Dummy. The band’s self-titled sophomore disc didn’t arrive until 1997, with songs built on samples that Barrow and Utley had created from scratch, rather than pulling from other artists’ work as they’d previously done. Reviews were good, but three years is a long time to be away, and for me, the promise wasn’t quite fulfilled.
After releasing a live CD the following year, Portishead went on hiatus. There were solo projects and one-off collaborations to tease anyone still paying attention, but it wasn’t until Portishead performed together at a 2005 benefit concert in Bristol that Barrow said they were working on new material.
The fruits of those long labors, an 11-track disc creatively titled Third, will be released on April 14, 2008. European tour dates have been announced, while stateside they’ll be headlining Coachella on April 26.
Some ten years later, how will music fans respond to Portishead’s melancholy magic during these truly sour times?