Pot Luck Review #9: Third

I've got about a dozen or so new (to me) albums sitting around (literally and figuratively - what do you call it when you have a bunch of record laying about on your hard drive?) waiting to be listened to, so for the rest of the week I'll be doing one Pot Luck Review a day and get these things listened to.

WHAT: Portishead's new album, Third (2008)

WHY: Because it's been 11 years since the last Portishead studio album. Because driving late at night in a city you're unfamiliar with and hearing snippets of Roseland NYC Live and not knowing who it was drove me to distraction until I could get to a record store and buy it. Because Beth Gibbons has one of the most haunting, sorrowful voices in modern music and because that video for "Only You" was frikkin' awesome.

Put on your dark clothes and light a candle...

1. Silence - Instruments begin to wake over foreign narration. Drums are prominent, moving this opener along a little more vibrantly than I'm used to hearing from Portishead. But as soon as the vocals kick in I'm suitably depressed. This might be the album to review on a bright Spring day...

2. Hunter - A quick cut off of the previous song leads to this, a lush, string-laden cup of sorrow that abruptly turns face, injects some crazy, and lapses back into more carpet gazing. I like this song more than the opener, which seemed to go in one direction and end. This largely does the same (one could argue all Portishead songs are roughly the same in their direction and goal), but there's a quiet theatrical menace that permeates the song. Real nice.

3. Nylon Smile - I read an amazon.com review where mastermind Geoff Barrow was quoted as wanting to sound different, but the same. I think they succeed. "Nylon Smile" is the same thing you've from Portishead before, but different. There's more of a world vibe on this track, shades of India and the Middle East.

4. The Rip - I would love to her a song like this unadorned, just the finger-picking of the guitar and Beth Gibbon's voice. Which isn't to do this song a disservice, but I imagine I could play any Portishead song and eventually hear creepy theremin sounds (whether from an actual theremin or a moog) and open chords heavy with the tremolo. About halfway in the song mutates into a more New Wave/drum and bass thing. So far I'm digging the overall lack of orchestrations from the live album.

5. Plastic - Goes crazy with the starts and stops, the dynamics shifting seemingly at random with throbs and crashes. There's a lot going on here, like their other records, everything benefits (I imagine since this is listen #1) from repeated listening.

6. We Carry On - Starts as an industrial march, then moves to something other. This is the pulse of a machine realizing it's sentient. And the preceding sentence was more pretentious than anything else written this year. Anyway, instead of feeling cinematic like their earlier records, this sound like a movie, evoking different moods and ideas over its length. So far this, "Hunter" and "The Rip" are sticking with me.

7. Deep Water - What? No effects? No reverb or echo? Just a ukulele's breezy strum and a voice singing to itself, no audience until the harmonies kick in with the right amount of ridiculousness and fun. Great unexpected diversion before proceeding back to items needing an electrical outlet.

8. Machine Gun - The cold, sterile staccato of the beats force you to focus on Gibbon's voice, here playing multiple roles as the sung harmony lines swerve between the speakers. Good, but when she's not singing this gets old quickly.

9. Small - Spare, but this sounds like something not quite finished. At least for the first 2:30; then it reinvents itself as a weird, 70's prog rock interlude, complete with sci-fi effects and a moog that sounds like it's covered in decades of dust. This is probably what people are going to like the least, but I applaud such a departure from what you would expect from a Portishead song. A brief return to the opening before descending to massive keyboard wanking. A little long in my opinion, but satisfying.

10. Magic Doors - Calling anything Portishead does as "traditional" is a bit of a misnomer, but "Magic Doors" is probably the most accessible song on Third. At least as long as you consider the vocal melody. As great as Gibbons is, this is definitely Barrow's album, and the music has quirks and intricacies that serve to elevate what could have potentially been a "Glory Box" or "Sour Times" clone. The odd sax break may be a bit too much, but I'll let it go because the percussion is so great.

11. Threads - Closing time. Typically eerie and sad, "Threads" ends Third with kind of a bored sigh than anything else. I don't know why I'd be surprised - how else would a Portishead album end? But after the eclectic display and move away from their comfort zone, this feels a little like a half-hearted attempt at melancholy as opposed to a full-fledged dive.

BOTTOM LINE: B+ There's enough going on to make it interesting, and it's not just a clone of what they 11 years ago. Third probably won't take the place of the live record for my favorite Portishead, but it's a brave choice to come out and not cash in on past successes when you've been gone for so long. Not something I'd recommend for every occasion, but perfect when isolated and feeling so alone (sung in best Morrissey imitation - please use plenty of echo).