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So naturally I hated this annoyingly willful piece of shit album from the start. If I had written an appraisal during my first week with it, Third would've received a treatment that read like Sia Michel's Blender review, which gave it a paltry 1.5 stars out of 5: "It's groove-deprived and difficult, and not in a particularly inventive way."
|[Photo by José Goulão, used under a Creative Commons license]|
I've now spent almost six months cringing through and putting away this box of horrors and, with the benefit of hindsight, I can no longer deny that the shakes it gives me are not bad. In fact, for all my bitching about how tame the echo chamber of Indie Rock has gotten, it is truly a blessing to have a puzzle worth parsing. Michel was wrong about one thing: Third ain't groove-deprived. It just splatters suffocatingly ugly hues of acrid, lead-based paint over its grooves like so many anti-fur activists stalking 5th Avenue. Check out the way the guitar, working against the Krautrock boogie in the opening "Silence," only gets its bearings by accident; for an act slotted as "electronic," Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow have little interest in holding a beat steady. Ditto for "Plastic," where the cadence creepily rewinds like a jack-in-the-box, popping out once in a while with an intentionally jarring drum fill to serve as the hook.
Let's talk about those, because these are hooks like you've never heard before. They're not catchy, they're merely what you remember about the songs, which barely exist to begin with. "Machine Gun," a propulsive endurance test that served as the first single [video] because it's the least woozy, is built around a distorted drum machine "riff" that tries its best to bleed over the melody throughout the whole song. The sheer hypnosis, and heaviness of it, is easily the most striking (and least Portishead-like) thing here. "We Carry On" is similarly built around a constant tribal-ska thump. The most disturbing sound on the record, with some competition, is the seasick hellnoise that occurs every time a verse in "Hunter" stops. I will not listen to this track in the dark. You'll remember "Deep Water" not because it's the trio's first ukulele cut, but because it's completely out of tune. Even the ballads here won't let you exhale. And barely anything resembles a song.
The trick to constructing an album as initially frustrating but ultimately rewarding as Third was taking Beth Gibbons at her self-parodic worst, warbling like Sylvia Plath in a karaoke booth after too many Absinthe-tinis, with nothing even close to a "Glory Box" or "Only You" to stop and rest in, and letting Utley and Barrow frame their creaky horror house around it. So right, this is the ugliest record I've heard in some time. But unlike the equally acclaimed (and execrable) TV on the Radio or Liars, Portishead circa 2008 don't just put traditional songs through the studio shitringer… they take every route but the straightest and refuse to let you come at every turn. I learned the hard way. SEE ALSO: www.portishead.co.uk
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/PORTISHEADALBUM3
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.
See other articles by Dan Weiss.
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