July 1, 2008

Portishead Sheds Labels for ‘Third’ Round

By Edna Gundersen

HOLLYWOOD -- Call it trippy. Just don't call it trip-hop.

Third album Third, Portishead's return after an 11-year hiatus, not only heralds a daring reinvention, it hammers the final nail into the coffin of a genre the U.K. trio popularized but never embraced.

Third is the band's first studio effort since 1997's Portishead, which built on the success of 1994 breakthrough Dummy, a dark, sensual tapestry of electro-jazz, hip-hop beats and Beth Gibbons' spare, spectral vocals. The sound lumped Portishead with Massive Attack and Tricky under the umbrella of trip-hop, a label the trio found stifling.

"We never once called ourselves trip-hop," says beat wizard Geoff Barrow, 36, poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel. "We've got nothing to do with the music that was spawned by these three acts and listened to by England's middle-class housewives, the fondue set."

The tag was "more a journalistic catchphrase for generic music that came after us and a plethora of bands that were forced into sounding like us because we were successful," says instrumentalist Adrian Utley, 51. "It doesn't really exist anymore."

Ahead of Portishead's early pace, Third entered Billboard at No. 7 and has sold 128,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It retains the band's signature creepiness and sorrowful vocals while ditching samples and hip-hop elements in favor of edgy, muscular live instrumentation and threads of tension, dread and panic in the psychedelia, experimental rock and cold electronica.

Its mood reflects the times. In the late '70s, the Sex Pistols and other British punkers "were an overt reaction to what was going on in the country," Utley says. "There was rubbish in the street. We had mass unemployment. Now there's a sneakiness about politics. The health industry is deconstructing slowly. We slipped into a war nobody wanted. You can't help but be affected."

Part of the album's musical shift was motivated by German progressive music, British psychedelic folk, mid-'80s electronica and fringe artists Barrow explored after starting a small label.

"I got inspired by how brilliantly extreme music can be without commercial aspirations," he says, pointing to favorites DJ/producer Madlib, ambient metal band Sun O))), U.K. grindcore act Extreme Noise Terror and Prague's avant-garde Plastic People of the Universe. "There are creative, uncompromising people out there you never hear about."

And yet it was mainstream Hollywood that kindled Third's most jarring interlude, the ukulele-driven Deep Water, featuring a ghostly barbershop chorus.

"I was watching Steve Martin singing Tonight You Belong to Me in (1979's) The Jerk, and I thought it was beautiful," Barrow says. "After making a lot of noise on the album, I thought we needed a left turn, something that wasn't noisy but still unconventional." (It's Utley's least favorite track: "I don't like doo-wop.")

Crafting Third entailed more "internal nervousness" than fears of meeting expectations, says Utley, describing the long break as necessary to replenish creative energies. After Portishead, the band toured the festival circuit, not an ideal environment for intimate soundscapes.

"We became something we never wanted to become," Barrow says. "I quit music for a couple years just to recuperate and find another life."

Adds Utley: "It wasn't Spice Girls pressure, but we didn't particularly want to work with each other anymore. It would have been a struggle to make a record at that time. We had to repair ourselves."

The three scattered and pursued outside projects before embarking on Third a few years ago. Progress was painstaking. "When we met with the head of Island Records, we played him seven tracks," Utley says. "A year later, we had six. We'd gone backward."

Portishead has returned to a music industry in upheaval. When the band retreated, Napster had yet to surface, iPods and iTunes didn't exist, and CD sales were robust. Its contract fulfilled, the trio is a free agent. "We're in a good position," Barrow says. "On our own, we could sell a quarter of what we do now and maintain our living.

"The major (labels) can't deal with alternative music anymore. They should sign rock, hip-hop and pure pop. Big egos, big budgets, big stars."

Utley is optimistic Portishead will thrive despite the tumultuous record business and the band's own disparate personalities.

"There's a strange chemistry and an odd division of labor," Utley says. "It's fairly dysfunctional but trusting. We're diametrically opposed at times, and we bring so many different things to the table. That's why it takes so long." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>