Homo homini rodentius est

Review: Third (Portishead)

Portishead Third
Adrian Utley, Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow — Portishead

I took a swipe at the band Portishead in a [recent post], referring to their “suffocating sincerity”. Accurate, if harsh. Back in the early to mid-90s, the trio of Utley, Gibbons and Barrow became exemplars of the trip-hop genre — a uniquely Euro invention of borrowed influences ranging from American breakbeats and sampling to British spy film themes and that resulted in darkly lush songs that were strange and hypnotic. Their 1994 debut, Dummy, broke big and became a huge hit and was followed by the less-successful follow up, Portishead in 1997. And then… silence, for 10 years. Except for a live CD, the band didn’t produce anything until this Spring when Third was released to generally positive reviews.

For those fans who fell in love with the ingenious word and sound play of Dummy, Third could be a challenge. Dummy was like going to a dark carnival, alternatively scary and exhilarating. Gibbons’ plaintive ruminations on the futility of love at the end of the century were leavened by Utley and Barrow’s clever scratch-beats and exaggerated melodies. Third is not nearly as accessible as their previous work, and it is dark — almost angry. Loud discordances and abruptly cutoff song endings. Gibbons’ voice doesn’t display the dynamic range it once did and her singing of the (unrelievedly) dire lyrics is somewhat monotonous. Aural gimmicks pop up, as on the track “Machine Gun” — in which drum machine and synth are used to aggravating and too-obvious effect (given the title of the song…). The final track on the CD, “Threads”, is a relentless lament that ends with a minutes-long synthesizer drone that sounds just like the ominous bellow emitted by the Martians in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds right before they lay waste to all around them. Probably not intentional. All the tracks aren’t as disappointing — “The Rip” is a lovely song that starts with simple acoustic guitar accompanied by a signature Theramin, and slowly opens up into driving rhythm underneath a note held by Gibbons so long it begins to sound like a siren.

Portishead was emblematic of its time — romantic and scary and absolutely unique. But I guess that time has passed. The unique combination of talents that came together in their first two CDs is, alas, not evident here and I’m sorry to say that. I so much wanted to love this.

the bird and the bee: polite dance song

This video works in so many ways… Jason Kaneshiro at Webomatica (see A Rat’s Reading List in the sidebar for link) turned me onto this LA duo and this video, directed by Eric Wareheim. I can’t resist the blasé attitude, drenched in ironic exhaustion. Very 90’s. Power chords joined to flat affect and feint gestures. Pure passive aggression. Yum. Like Portishead, but without their suffocating sincerity.

More please.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day
Take a moment.

It’s always hard to remember, amid the breathless blatherings from local news reporters about the weather and the state of the beaches on the “unofficial start of Summer” that Memorial Day is basically funereal in nature. As the national memories of wars of mass involvement (WW2, Vietnam) fade, it becomes harder to relate to the tragedy of the professional armed forces who are sent into harms way to execute presidential policies. Without the threat of a draft, wars become something other people do — we may feel empathy for their suffering, but not the visceral sense of personal threat that could pressure policy makers to change their plans. And that, of course, is why we don’t have a draft in the “War on Terror”. But it bears remembering that, to date, 4,589 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and perhaps 30,000 wounded.

Here are a couple of links to worthwhile places you can explore after you get your fill of burgers and the beach:

  • [Carrier] — a great PBS multi-part documentary about the lives of sailors on the USS Nimitz.
  • [The Wounded Warrior Project] — a great service for returning veterans who have been maimed in the current war. Send them a few bucks.

Thinking of Mom

One of These Things is Not Like the Others My mom (3rd from the right) as a teenager. Maude was pretty as a picture, with the voice of an angel and the mouth of a sailor. A very bawdy sailor.

My co-workers frequently comment on the burdens of raising children and the consultations they regularly have with their kids’ teachers which, in these over-cautious times, often take on the gravity of papal audiences. As the resident childless drone in the office I have nothing to reference during these conversations except my own history of parent-teacher interactions. Such as the time my older sister was in fourth grade and came home crying because she had received a rap on the head from her teacher, who wore a heavy costume jewelry ring for just that purpose. The next morning my mother walked her to school, then continued into the building and into my sister’s classroom. “Listen, tramp,” she said to the hapless teacher, “if you ever touch my child again I will come up here and pull your blond hair out by its black roots!” In a class of 30 students picture 29 small mouths agape and a teacher in tears. I’m sure my sister wanted to crawl off the planet at that moment, but years later we would regale each other with re-tellings of a story that so perfectly summed up the exasperating extent of our mother’s loyalty.

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Advertising goes back to the future

Product Placements
The Medium is the Message Rosario Dawson in a viral YouTube video for Gemini Division, Bravo’s Top Chef prominently featuring Glad products, and Microsoft Photosynth starring in a recent episode of CSI.

Once upon a time, back in television’s Stone Age, a juvey medium that wasn’t quite sure how to make money from new technology decided to continue an approach that had been in use since Lever Brothers underwrote silent films that featured its Sunlight Soap — put products the sponsors were trying to sell right into the shows being sponsored and even have the actors in the programs occasionally step out of character for a pitch directly to the audience. We’ve all seen corny examples of this and it was broadly satirized in the media-bashing Truman Show a few years back.

As the effectiveness of 30 and 60 second commercial breaks became clear, product placement faded and in fact was avoided — so that television shows could be re-run and re-syndicated without worrying about conflicts with unknown future sponsors.

Then along came remote channel changers and Tivo…

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