Portishead’s music defies description—though that hasn’t stopped English critics from dubbing this Bristol duo’s quirky sound “trip-hop.” Ignore the label and grab the garment: DJ-producer Geoff Barrow’s mega-mix of jazz, symphonic swatches and obscure sound effects adds up to something more than the latest European club craze, largely because of the stunning work of vocalist Beth Gibbons.
Some might want to listen to Dummy with the lights on, because Gibbons and Barrow create a world so ghostly you may think the CD player has channeled the musical netherworld. The opening moments of “Mysterons,” the album’s first track, feature a theremin, the presynthesizer electronic instrument that produces the neck-tingling wail often heard in grade-B horror flicks. You’ll also hear a cinematic reference in the bouncing ’60s spy film bassline of “Sour Times.” On the dance-hall hit “Wandering Star,” Gibbons plays the dark diva role to the hilt, plaintively asking, “Please could you stay awhile to share my grief/The blackness, the darkness forever….” against the hip-hop thumping. But the album isn’t all whacked-out woe: On tracks like “It’s a Fire” and “It Could Be Sweet,” Gibbons becomes a honey-voiced temptress in the Sade mode, and her soulful delivery on “Numb” is simply amazing. Obscure and challenging, Dummy is also fascinating and deeply felt. (For the curious, Portishead is the name of a hardscrabble coastal shipping town near Bristol). (Go! Discs/London)