Customer Review

256 of 280 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Third, April 29, 2008
This review is from: Third (Audio CD)
"We really wanted to sound like ourselves but not sound like ourselves. It was always going to be difficult." - Geoff Barrow, Pitchfork Media interview, Apr. 7, 2008.

Geoff Barrow and the rest of Portishead had every reason in the world to feel this way. When Dummy debuted in 1994, it didn't sound like anything else and wasn't even expected to sell 50,000 copies. It's hard to believe in this day and age, but Dummy's dark, torchy pop punctuated with hip-hop beats and swimming in a sea of bass had never before been co-opted by anyone--not even Massive Attack, who had approached trip-hop from more of a dance perspective. It blew up, sparking a trip-hop genesis in alt-rock circles looking for a viable (and similarly angst-ridden) alternative to grunge, especially in the States. Now, of course, Dummy's sound is everywhere, from the umpteen upstart trip-hop bands that subsequently appeared to spy films, cocktail parties and massage therapy commercials. So we would be forgiven for not being bowled over by Dummy today, and Portishead would be forgiven for wanting to distance themselves from it.

When last we heard from Portishead, it seemed as though they were packing it in for good, leaving us with a slightly less fresh self-titled album in 1997 and a live recording at Manhattan's Roseland Ballroom in 1998 before retreating into the shadows. Always something of an enigma and quite shy of the press, it was left to us to assume that Portishead was frustrated with how their crown jewel had been assimilated and watered-down, and that they were too daunted by the challenge that Barrow mentioned above to record a third album: How do you sound like yourself and not sound like yourself? All of which makes Third--a record that wasn't even supposed to exist--such a cryptically dazzling triumph. Third is no Dummy: It's much bleaker, makes precious few references to pop, and attains a level of creepiness that Dummy's strangest song, "Wandering Star," only suggested. Yet one listen to Third is all it takes to realize that nobody else is making music quite like this, and this is how Portishead still sound like themselves. In fact, hearing Third in 2008 may clue us into what it was like to hear Dummy in 1994.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, the first thing to do when approaching Third is to forget about trip-hop and all the associations it carries. Barrow's drums stay far, far away from a hip-hop swagger; rather than providing a backbone, these diverse rhythms teeter on edge with the rest of the music and add another ominous layer to the mix. "Plastic" uses amped, clipped drum rolls that send the song screeching to a halt about a dozen times, and "We Carry On" is driven by a scary tom-led tribal stomp (Morcheeba this isn't). Barrow doesn't cop out by adding bassy undercurrents for cheap mystery; instead, he punches up the compression and keeps the sound trebly and brittle, giving the impression that everything is flying right at you even when the songs stand still. Third may be stubbornly unsexy, but that doesn't mean it's not alluring. Indeed, it wields an odd magnetic power that draws the listener ever further into its disorienting abyss, even when all of the elements jump bluntly out of the speakers.

By the same token, Third's allure doesn't make it an easy listen, and it can be particularly heady when experienced in one straight pass. The sequencing feels all wrong, moving up and down and up again in the most unsettling of ways. After the distorted anti-song "Silence" kicks the record off, Portishead dips into the heavily narcotized haunted house of "Hunter," where Beth Gibbons' vocals drift sleepily and hypnotically through the arrangement. "We Carry On" is followed by the 90-second respite "Deep Water," which sounds like Gibbons fronting the Ink Spots over a ukulele melody, before being gunned down by the incessant staccato rapid-firing of "Machine Gun." Through it all, Gibbons sings like an innocent bystander; divorced from and frightened by the music around her, she becomes our stand-in for its unfamiliar territory. She contributes little to the record compositionally and melodically, but remove her and obliterate a sizable chunk of Third's emotional punch.

The members of Portishead are noted experimentalists, but they don't just make cool sounds for fun. The backward-looped guitar on "Nylon Smile," the warped ascending scales on "Hunter," and the many other weird noises that crop up on Third contain an element of caution like aural barbed wire: As unpleasant as they may be, they're there to keep us from venturing somewhere truly dangerous. The creepy Portuguese television program that begins "Silence" seems appropriate, since listening to Third can feel as though we're tuning into a channel that we're not meant to know about or watch. I imagine that trip-hop in its nascent form--Massive Attack's Mezzanine, Tricky's Maxinquaye, and yes, Portishead's Dummy--was originally meant to invoke this sort of forbidden underworld, but that somewhere down the road the plot got lost, and its darkness and foreboding turned into something more manageable, fashionable and marketable. By rescuing trip-hop from a fate of Banana Republic soundtracks and putting their extremely personal stamp on a tired genre, Portishead have re-established themselves not simply as masters of their craft, but as reinventors of it.
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Showing 1-10 of 38 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 30, 2008 6:22:43 AM PDT
Mike Newmark says:
I really don't know why so many people are finding this review unhelpful, but could people who take issue with it leave me a comment instead of simply giving it an unhelpful vote? That way I can respond to your specific concerns and improve as a writer as well.

Posted on Apr 30, 2008 8:06:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 30, 2008 8:07:10 PM PDT
DJDDay says:
"She (Beth) contributes little to the record compositionally and melodically..." This comment is completely inaccurate. Beth contributes as much to the song writing as anyone, and without her 3rd would be a well crafted instrumental peculiarity. Other than that, your review is extremely well written and very helpful.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 30, 2008 8:51:54 PM PDT
Mike Newmark says:
I actually think we agree to some extent; "a well crafted instrumental peculiarity" is exactly what Third would be without the frightened, deer-in-the-headlights emotionality that Beth conveys. And while it's true that all three members had a part in the songwriting credits, I was talking in particular about what Beth's *voice* does for this album, which is, in my opinion, more emotional than compositional or melodic (in terms of providing counterpoints, harmonic foils, etc. for the music). My apologies if this comment came off perplexing.

Posted on May 1, 2008 11:30:51 AM PDT
I think 27 of 55 people found this review helpful (at this time) largely because your review comes off as Pitchfork-level pretentious and seems to have more to do with you getting your rocks off as a know-it-all/cooler-than-you critic who wants to be published by Pitchfork than by the standard Amazon fanboys and fangirls howling "buy it" or "this is crap."

In reply to an earlier post on May 1, 2008 4:03:19 PM PDT
Mike Newmark says:
Well I don't know. When the first reviews came out for this they were all voted unhelpful. I came back to see 2 out of 10 helpful votes, but so did everyone else--even the ones that were less polished. I wanted to know why.

I'm also confused about the tone of this comment. Are you insulting me specifically? Are you insulting me AND the "amazon fanboys and fangirls" in one fell swoop? Do you not like anyone?

I really do hope people found this review helpful. I listened to it closely and published it in my college newspaper (this isn't just for Amazon), so I put a lot of effort into making it helpful AND making it sound semi-professional.

Posted on May 1, 2008 7:00:51 PM PDT
Excellent review. This was very thoughtfully written and provides an interesting interpretation of the music.

P.S. Instead of wasting time arguing with people who disagree, you should be out writing more reviews...

In reply to an earlier post on May 2, 2008 7:23:24 AM PDT
Mike Newmark says:
*Sigh* Thanks M. You should know that this was my last review for the Vassar Miscellany, as I'm graduating in a couple of weeks and starting a doctoral program in clinical psychology this fall. I mention all of this because, for the next five years of grad school, I'm going to have my hands completely full, and I was pretty much thinking of retiring from writing anyhow. I've been doing the review thing for the college paper since I was a freshman, but after reading some comments I've gotten here I thought it would be an appropriate time to stop. It's not the way I would have wanted to bow out, but I feel like the music journalism world is much more herky-jerky and disappointing than, say, the clinical psychology world. It's not a final decision at this point, but before reading this, it was. So thanks.

P.S. I'm aware that this comment adds absolutely nothing to this discussion, so everyone feel free to unhelpful-vote it to oblivion.

In reply to an earlier post on May 2, 2008 7:54:14 AM PDT
billy says:
I think your review is pretty much spot on. It's very well written and very in depth, something you don't get a lot on amazon. I think the ammount of unhelpful votes is due to knee jerk reactions from some fans who were expecting something closer to their first two albums, and when they listened to Third it wasn't what they expected so they marked your glowing review unhelpful. There's quite the mixed reaction (on amazon at least) to what I consider my favorite album of the year so far.

You're creeping up over .500 now though, and I think that will continue as fans who've digested this album a bit more start coming to this page and see your review.

In reply to an earlier post on May 2, 2008 8:30:42 AM PDT
Mike Newmark says:
Now that you mention it, the word "helpful" as in "Do you find this review helpful?" is a little misleading. Like, if you don't care for an album and someone writes a stellar review of it, does that make it "unhelpful"? The feature was probably added to weed out B.S. reviews (we all know what they look like) and to send the better-written ones to the main page, but maybe they should add another feature in which you're asked whether or not you agree with a particular review. Because it seems like a lot of the unhelpful votes come from people who just disagree with the reviewer (as you said) for no other reason than personal preference-- I see a lot of 1-star reviews get unhelpful'd out of orbit because (I surmise) most people who go to the page with the review on it have actually heard the album and enjoy it, and therefore want to sorta boo them offstage.

In reply to an earlier post on May 2, 2008 9:34:53 AM PDT
I review a lot of stuff for Amazon, and I've found that the artists with the more rabid fanbases will always result in more "unhelpful" votes, simply because a lot of people are just elitists who like the look of their own writings more than anyone else's. I mean, my review of Third has a 15/50 right now, and yet 0 comments...that just screams of people wanting their own review to get more attention than my own. I've discovered the same thing when reviewing The Mars Volta.

Typically after a week or two, if your review is still up towards the top you'll get a lot more helpful votes because a lot of those rabid fans will go elsewhere. I think you wrote a great review and should not worry about these people. Just keep doing your thing.
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