Sweet New Arrivals: Dummy

Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to just address the fact that most of my “Sweet New Arrival” posts are about rock, pop or hip hop arrivals. It’s not that I don’t care about classical, jazz or musical theatre CDs, it’s just that we have so many CDs in those genres, with much higher discretion (no Jimmy Buffet equivalents there). To me, any time we procure a classic rock/pop/rap CD, we’re really making a stride in strengthening the presence of those genres in our collection.

Anyways, let me get off my soapbox and onto another one, because we just got ourselves a copy of Dummy by Portishead. This is one of the most important and perfectly realized albums of the ’90s “trip hop” scene, encompassing other British acts such as Massive Attack and Tricky and valuing a mixture of hip-hop aesthetics with electronic experimentation and a generally sour, downtempo mood. Portishead, a trio composed of Geoff Barrow (production), Beth Gibbons (vocals) and Adrian Utley (guitar), released Dummy in 1993, the magnum opus of this style.

The music on Dummy perfectly showcases the elements of what would come to define trip-hop. From the get-go, Barrow was a genius at production. His beats knock as hard or harder than anything coming out of New York City at the time (even Wu-Tang), and his ghostly jazz samples deftly add an element of warped nostalgia to songs such as the smoky, sax-pierced “Wandering Star” and the skulking spy-soundtrack single “Sour Times”. The moods range from loungey and understated (“It Could Be Sweet”) to dissonant and almost industrial, hinting at their next album’s style (“Strangers”). Other songs, like “Numb,” straddle the difference. Lastly, gorgeous ballads “It’s A Fire” and especially the stunning “Roads” reveal Barrow’s musical sensitivity and ear for string arrangements. Utley contributes everything from mournful wahs (yes, really) on “It’s A Fire” to razor-sharp distortion on dramatic standout closer “Glory Box”.

If Dummy were an instrumental album, it would be excellent, but would it be the best? Thanks to Beth Gibbons, we don’t need to think about that answer. Formerly an aspiring jazz singer, Gibbons brings a feminine intensity to Barrow’s soundscapes, turning Dummy into a sort of extended torch song, a concept album about all sorts of unrequited passions. Her strangely poetic lyrics range from wretched hurt to occult natural imagery to struggles with self-identity and self-loathing. But her talented delivery truly brings out the feeling of her lines, sometimes harsh and pained, sometimes with strange inflections, and sometimes gorgeous.

Of all the albums of the trip-hop era (maybe except their self-titled second album, also great), Dummy sounds the least dated, the least contrived. It’s a solid album through-and-through, without any filler, eleven songs of super high quality. Its play of shadow and light is dialectical: its darkness is not absolute because of its musical cleverness and groove, and yet its catchiness cannot fully escape the gloomy mood. In the words of Sam, “sounds fresh.”

Enough out of me, check it out yourself!

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