Portishead are good, aren’t they. Today I received in the post a vinyl copy of their debut full length album Dummy; you may have heard of it. I got it for a mere tenner, which came as a pleasant surprise to me as I thought new album hype would have worked up the average price up a bit for this one. Maybe it used to be a fiver, who knows. I am still yet to hear anything from the new album. I am assured it is good, both from the internet and friends, but for the moment I am content with Dummy.
It took me a while to get to this album in the first place. In 1994 I hated pretty much anything that wasn’t hard rock or heavy metal. Apart from Crash Test Dummies, oddly. I hated Britpop, Trip Hop and… I don’t know, Be-Bop. Actually, I do remember liking one thing that involved Tricky at the time. well, I hated it, but loved it secretly and that illicit love made me hate it that much more. I remember it airing at the end of one Top of the Pops episode; Tricky morphing into a woman and back. Maybe Martina. Oh, this’ll be it: ’Hell is Around the Corner’. Boy did that sample ever confuse me.
Anyway, my ‘awakening’ to dance/electronica/rap in any big way (of course I listened to the odd bit of PE and NWA in middle school, Cypress and Prodge early in high school, but always as an anomalous ‘hey look, this isn’t rock and I like it!’ kinda deal) was in summer-ish 2000. I caught up on stuff that had been happening outside my ghetto as I became increasingly annoyed by what was currently happening in metal. So I got lent Dummy by a co-worker about three years my senior, among other things.
And I loved it. 2000 was a suitably balmy summer, many nights spent on grass outside pubs, the trusty old MD player (what has happened to me?!) banging out the Leftfield and Gravediggaz – as well as old rock. That was the summer I also got into Led Zep and Van Halen. But one of my most enduring memories of that year out, spent working as opposed to backpacking, was being on the top deck of a sweltering and deserted bus during what should have been rush hour. I was listening to Dummy and reading What Hi-Fi (before I learned of that magazine’s dubious ties with Cambridge Audio and Richer Sounds), loving the summer sun as it beat through the windows, their crack-like openings doing nothing to stymie the stuffiness, and most likely dehydrating just a little. But it was great.
Isn’t it funny how when you’re young, you think albums are really old but they aren’t really? For example in 1996, I thought Master of Puppets was fucking ancient, being from 1986 and all. Fast forward to 2006, and albums like Roots and Odelay seemed nothing of the sort. And it works in a way that is more extreme than simple ageing relativism. Can you believe Mezzanine/1965/Our Problem/This is Hardcore/Music Has the Right to Children (delete according to taste) is a decade old this year?! I guess my point is Dummy was only six years old during that freaky-nice summer, but it already felt like it had been around forever; an acknowledged Classic.
And now it’s fourteen years old. That’s pretty sobering news to someone like me, freaking out due to being in late twenties now: everything to do with the passing of time is like an ice pick betwixt the shoulder blades. But it’s pretty cool in a way, both because I am now at a stage where I was cynical about albums that came out a decade and a half ago, and also because this current state of no-time softens the blow a bit. Like, who gives a toss, when I’m getting in stuff like Perrey-Kingsley albums from 1966 (in stereo, to boot!) and they fit oddly well with the Tusses and Landstrumms of this era.
This is all a roundabout way of saying I have listened to Dummy at least twice since getting in from work this evening, and each time, it has been a sheer delight. Maybe it’s due to the ubiquitous legacy of the album, but it seems to tread that fine line between cool-thing-that-everyone-can-like and merely coffee-table. It’s always on the correct side, like (something that cannot always be said for Massive Attack or Leftfield), but the fine line is an interesting thing to consider for middlebrows like me. The production is fantastic, as the sorta warm, crackly aesthetic fits perfectly with the vinyl format: not so much modern day attempt at faux-antique authenticity as album on vinyl that sounds like it should be on vinyl. The bass that always loomed large over (or under) the record is bigger than ever, but still defined, stabbing away as it does like a battering ram of low frequency.
I’m not sure I ever noticed before how great Beth’s vocals are on this one. Her choice of tone suits each moment perfectly, which is a rare skill nowadays (1994, ‘nowadays’ – I am getting old), and her melodies manage to be both imaginative and inordinately catchy. Every song is fantastic, and I have to love an album which celebrates sadness in such a blatant way while avoiding overdosing on woe-is-me. In a way, I bought this at quite the wrong time, as the new album has an awful lot to live up to all of a sudden.