Portishead: Third

Portishead has only made three albums in 14 years—and what right-thinking person would have wanted more? If they'd pumped out a new disc every other year, no matter how good, they'd have turned into Morcheeba—a moody relic, forever stuck in a moment when breakbeats and bad vibes for boom times hadn't become the sound of abject nostalgia. Instead, Portishead has become a minor legend by keeping silent. Though Beth Gibbons has recorded with Rustin Man in the meantime, Portishead's producers, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, have only loomed larger in their absence, allowing the trio to slip the dated trip-hop tag. The triumph of Third is that it sounds exactly like Portishead and nothing like trip-hop. This is the late-night, beat-driven, torpid-languid music of a zillion coffee shops, sure, but with the blood drained out of it, a creepy-crawly, black-and-white-sounding thing that gets under the skin and stays there from the first play. On tracks like "The Rip" (whose rubber-band keyboards and tick-tocking drums are reminiscent of mid-period Stereolab) and the smoky-hazy "Nylon Smile," Gibbons sounds more hollowed-out and harrowed than ever, a human nervous twitch on too much coffee and too little sleep. And whether it's the muscular steel-sheet guitars of "We Carry On," the frayed electronic drums and keyboard stabs of "Machine Gun," or the psychedelic spaghetti-Western soundtrack of "Silence," Barrow and Utley provide deep spaces for Gibbons' raw emotions to sink into, and nearly every track provides some little sonic goodie midway through as a reward for continued attention after all these years. For once, it's worth the effort.

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