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Beth Gibbons And Rustin Man: Out Of Season

Album: Out Of Season
Label: Sanctuary

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With beats inspired by hip-hop, paranoia sampled from spy music, and soulful sadness drawn from the deepest reaches of funk, Portishead made (and theoretically still makes) an extraordinarily potent cocktail of sounds–so powerful, in fact, that it was occasionally possible to overlook how crucial a role singer Beth Gibbons played in the band. Gifted with a rare voice that refuses category, she's as capable of ethereal Sandy Denny folk purity as Eartha Kitt-like growls, and she fuses genres with her singing the way her band has with its music. Now teamed with Rustin Man, otherwise known as Paul Webb from Talk Talk, Gibbons brings that voice front and center with her first non-Portishead effort. Released in Europe last fall but only now making its U.S. debut, Out Of Season makes Portishead's remarkable innovations sound like so much extra baggage to Gibbons' voice. Which isn't to overlook the importance of Gibbons' and Man's instrumentation: Using an array of string players, percussionists, and backing vocalists, they sound lush enough to be the house band at David Lynch's favorite after-hours hangout. But from the beginning, Gibbons drives each of Season's slow, atmospheric tracks. The album opens with the line "God knows how I adore life." What follows captures the fragility and danger of that sentiment, as Gibbons sings about heartbreak, hope, and the inevitability of change, in tones alternately smoky and spooky. With its string punctuations and muted blasts of Stax horns, "Tom The Model" comes closest to an uptempo track, but most of the album's songs offer variations on the same sustained, haunted, hopeful mood. Emphasizing Gibbons' rough edges, "Romance" visits a tearful cabaret, "Drake" pays tribute to its namesake, and the aching penultimate track "Funny Time Of Year" brings it all to a slow-building climax. Given the anticipation attached to everything Portishead touches, the moonlighting Gibbons risked creating a side-project footnote with Out Of Season. Instead, she and Man have made an album as rich and rewarding as those she produces at her day job.