Geoff Barrow, once of Massive Attack, teamed with sultry Beth Gibbons to create Portishead, a blending of trip-hop, film noir and lounge sounds, haunting and majestic, producing songs that cast a calm, serene spell, as well as mournful and at times despairingly beautiful. This is the music of Portishead, and fans of the group unfortunately only have two albums to listen to.
Fortunately, nearly every track by Portishead is a great one. Moody, dark, unique and unrivaled, Portishead can move you with its seemingly sparse yet complex structures, and Beth Gibbons vocal stylings make one yearn for ever more. The music spans a variety of eras, combining several genres masterfully and claiming allegiance to none.
Perhaps the song Portishead is best known for is Sour Times, off their debut album, Dummy. Sour Times to this day is probably the number one song on the list of top ten songs by Portishead, no matter who you ask. The sensual attack of Sour Times and its quietly wailing chorus of “nobody loves me” has been firmly etched in the minds of Portishead fans since its first initial debut, and to this day, you’d be hard pressed to find a comparable substitute.
Shifting to a lower gear, Wandering Star was quiet and reserved, but no less refined, and harkens back to days of dimly lit piano bars and sultry, sexy lounge acts. The playful beat of Wandering Star acts as a backdrop to the melancholic expanse of the song, comprised of several subtle layers.
Innovative and cold, Undenied is a solid track, full of jazzy percussion and hard lyrics. Undenied can be found on their second album, the self-titled Portishead. The second album by Portishead adds more jazz and moves trip-hop beats to the background, and tends to favor more distortion and a 50s flavor. On Undenied, and on the introductory track, Cowboys, number four on the list of top ten Portishead songs, Beth Gibbons favors harder vocals, slipping away from her seductively distant voice to transform into a jarring assault that keeps you riveted.
But the surreal melody can still be found on songs like Over, a despairing track that once again fills the listener with lonesome emotions and ghostly passionate feelings. While much of the second album can be described as the perfect David Lynch film noir soundtrack, Over tends to be the standout track similar to the songs on Dummy, lacking much of the deeper composition and electronic effects present on the remainder of the album. This does not detract from the song in any way, however. Rather, Over is like a stripped-down Sour Times, and serves to keep the album evenly flowing without becoming stale.
Glory Box, on the Dummy album, tends to contain a steady energy while at the same time maintaining that quiet soulful fusion of trip-hop and jazz, and is number six on the list. Much of the music on Dummy was ahead of its time, and Glory Box found instant favor with much of the masses who enjoyed Portishead’s particular blend of musical mystery and subtle blending of various tempos.
Soft and haunting, Roads is a low-key rainy day song, for wistful hearts and lonesome travelers. Soulful, mournful, and chillingly sad at times, Roads is a classic achievement of down-tempo music, and definitely deserves to be at number seven on the list.
For number eight, I would have to declare a tie between Half Day Closing and Humming, songs that contain an experimental flair coupled with alien jazz and filtered percussion. The songs are just as entrancing as the lighter stuff on the album, despite the oddly gloomy effects and sinister tones.
Portishead deftly fills each of their songs with dripping, murky atmosphere, and this is evident on the introductory track on Dummy, Mysterons. Mysterons is like the opening act for Sour Times, and though overshadowed by the more popular second act, it is no less capable of holding its own as a mystically dark jazz piece fused with breakbeats and held together by the fresh, clean vocals of a dreamy siren.
Lastly, the number ten song, Mourning Air, is surreal and fantastic. A perfect blend of all the elements of both albums, Mourning Air remains a steadfast example of the talented and amazing Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons. Deep and integral to the mythos of Portishead, this single track exemplifies the depressive qualities of the Portishead album, and serves to complete the list of what could be a wonderful live show of some of Portishead’s best tracks.