Portishead: PNYC

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Portishead

Album: PNYC
Label: London

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Portishead's 1994 debut Dummy will long be admired as the album that broke trip-hop big. The record's slow-motion beats and cool samples oozed secret-agent chic, making even the most mundane modern-rock listener feel mysterious on the way to the supermarket. But if Portishead was the first trip-hop superstar, it was also the first to stumble over the expectations it set up for itself. After talking up his apparently endless stream of creativity, Portishead visionary Geoff Barrow suffered a severe bout of writer's block that delayed the band's hotly anticipated follow-up, and when that album finally landed in 1997, an air of relative indifference surrounded it. Maybe it was Barrow's perfectionism, or even an honest-to-goodness slump, but Portishead's self-titled second release seemed like little more than a slower, darker, colder shadow of its predecessor. It wasn't exactly a step backwards, but it was clearly the sound of a band treading water, however competently. Consequently, the release of a live album so early in a young career—the ultimate lazy stopgap—doesn't bode well for Portishead's future. But the band deserves credit for fashioning a live souvenir that not only stands on its own but also in many ways improves upon its counterparts. Recorded mostly during one night in New York with the accompaniment of a huge string section, PNYC isn't exactly the sound of a band cutting loose. Obviously, the music was charted out to exacting perfection, partly for the benefit of the orchestra and partly for the benefit of the anal-retentive Barrow. In fact, a few songs, from their lazy drum beats to Barrow's perfunctory scratching to Beth Gibbons' increasingly remarkable voice, sound uncannily like their recorded counterparts. But there's also a sense of warmth that was missing from the two studio records, supplied in part by the swelling strings and live acoustics. The ultra-minimal "All Mine" boasts a newfound swankness, and "Mysterons" sounds like an exotic mesh of smoky jazz, "Bolero," and brittle beats. Most notably, "Sour Times," one of two tracks not recorded in New York, is completely rearranged, a gutsy move considering that it's the group's only real hit. What PNYC is missing, however, is anything really new, and now that it's played its "live" card, Portishead has even more incentive to come back with something special. Judging from the band's lethargic work ethic, you'd be wise not to hold your breath.

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