Stone, February 23, 1995
NEW FACES: PORTISHEAD
With eerie, spare backing tracks and emotionally wrenching vocals, Portishead play music for when the ecstasy wears off and
the tingle becomes a chill. It's dance noir for those too world-weary to move their feet. The British group's haunting debut
album, Dummy has already caused a sensation at home, where it has tapped into England's bleak mood. And with America
entering the Gingrich era, when Hope is nothing but a town in Arkansas, Portishead's languorous chronicles of estrangement -
such as "Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)," which is now an MTV Buzz Clip - are striking a chord here as well
Portishead were born three and a half years ago in a suitably depressing place: the Bristol, England, unemployment office. Geoff
Barrow, 23, who produces the backing tracks, and vocalist Beth Gibbons, 30, who writes the melodies and lyrics, both
wanted to pursue music careers, but they didn't seem to have much else in common.
"We agreed to differ," says Gibbons diplomatically of their musical tastes. Barrow liked Gravediggaz and the soundtracks of
John Barry (Goldfinger), Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and Russ Meyer films. Gibbons looked askance
at sequencers and once sang Janis Joplin and Fleetwood Mac songs in a cover band. Yet it turned out Gibbons and Barrow
did share one similarity: "I like emotionally disturbing songs," says Barrow, who describes one song Gibbons played for him as
"kind of nasty and weird."
Portishead are jokingly named after the dreary home-town from which Barrow escaped. "It's a place where the local
newspaper headline is Vera's birthday or the flower show," he says. "It looks really pretty and twee, but it's actually quite
horrible." At 17, Barrow started commuting to nearby Bristol, where he became a studio Wunder-kind working on Neneh
Gibbons grew up in Devon, England, where, she says, 'you just get married and have kids." When she simultaneously broke up
with her boyfriend and left her job at a dock-making company, Gibbons mustered up the courage to leave town and try singing
professionally. In London she hooked up with Paul Webb of Talk Talk, but that and subsequent collaborations didn't pan out.
While her lyrics and plaintive cigarettes-and-black-coffee vocals reflect the series of failed relationships and dead-end career
moves that led her to Bristol, her pessimism is so unrelenting that some have speculated she must have suffered some
"I wasn't sexually abused," Gibbons says, dispensing with the usual explanation. "I have divorced parents, which didn't help, but
I don't like it when I blame things on my parents." Barrow has never asked Gibbons why her lyrics are so melancholy and
thinks it's a subject "best left alone."
Now, Barrow and Gibbons are concentrating on making their second album and building their own studio. The success of
Dummy and a new relationship have Gibbons sounding almost optimistic "I'm happy now," she says. "Relatively happy. Sort
By AL WEISEL