Portishead’s Difficult Third Album
And a Bunch of Other Reviews

“Singled Out” Department

So much music to talk about this time. Deep breath.

Let’s start with “Violet Hill,” the new Coldplay single. Haven’t heard it? You can get it for free right now here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Ready? Okay, I think what I like best about this single is it just isn’t a single at all. It starts with about 40 seconds of droning ambience, the signature of producer Brian Eno, before Chris Martin and his piano come marching in. Sounds like Coldplay, but the end result is anything but “Speed of Sound” – the song has a dirty, loose feel to it, and its very Coldplay hook (“If you love me, won’t you let me know”) is understated. Then the song ends with a lovely piano-vocal coda.

I think it’s a brilliant move to give this song away for free. It shows off just how different and cool Coldplay’s fourth album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, is likely to be – it’s one of those cases in which the best ad for the album is probably going to be the album itself. I was interested in the record before hearing “Violet Hill,” but now I’m excited for it. And one thing I like best about the single is it sounds like part of a whole, an excerpt of a complete album statement. I can’t wait to hear the rest of it on June 17.

Other singles I’m excited about:

Joy Electric has released the title track from their new one, My Grandfather, the Cubist. It’s minimal and dance-y and memorable, just the way I like my Joy E. Go here.

And if you haven’t yet heard the eight-and-a-half-minute “I Will Possess Your Heart” from Death Cab for Cutie’s new record, Narrow Stairs, you really should: clicky. I’m back and forth on it – on the one hand, there’s no reason for this thing to be eight and a half minutes long, but on the other, it’s mesmerizing.

Okay, enough singles, on with the albums.

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“I Waited 11 Years for This?” Department

Most weeks, I kind of saunter down to the local record store. I’m often excited about the week’s new releases, but not enough to quicken my pace – I’ll get there eventually, you know? But there are some new albums that send me into a sprint, ones I have to have yesterday if not sooner.

Portishead’s Third was like that for me. I nearly pulled a muscle getting to the store this week. And now that I have it, and I’ve heard it a few times… well…

Let’s back up. First of all, it’s kind of odd that this thing exists at all. Portishead’s trio of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley came out of nowhere in 1994 with a unique sound. I know it’s difficult to imagine, but back then, no one sounded like Portishead – by now the sparse, slow beats, samples and female vocals of their debut album, Dummy, have permeated pop music. They were sultry and spooky at the same time, when no one else was either one.

My initial reaction to Dummy was a sustained head-scratch. I felt like they just hadn’t finished it – like they’d sketched out these songs, and started to record them, and then got distracted by something else. A song like “Wandering Star” is just drums, one synth line and Gibbons’ smoky voice, and nothing else, and I found it empty instead of hypnotic. But I came around, especially after comparing Dummy to the 1997 self-titled follow-up, a fuller and stranger work that was even more off-putting.

I eventually got used to that record as well, so maybe, after a couple of years, I’ll know what to make of Third. It’s been 11 years since Portishead pretty much disappeared, refusing to reap the benefits of their revolutionary sound. Their absence has drawn deafening apathy – no one was clamoring for Third, and many were okay with the idea that the band had burned brightly and briefly. A new album was a complete surprise… but not as much as that album’s content.

As I said, I’ve heard Third a few times now. And I’m still perplexed by it.

To start with, there are no hooks. At all. Now, I don’t necessarily need singalongs to be a happy music fan, but I get the sense that everything on Third is deliberately obtuse and difficult, and par for the course with that mentality is a lack of memorable melodies. The album opener, “Silence,” starts with two minutes of abrasive acid jazz before coalescing around a couple of chords and Gibbons’ wandering vocal. And it repeats until the end – the sound is thick, full, almost live in places, and the song just stops mid-phrase at the five minute mark.

Next is “Hunter,” which starts off like Portishead – a loping jazz ballad, a smoky Gibbons vocal, a shadow of a chorus – but everything about it is off-kilter. Especially the pair of “On the Run”-style synth breaks that deliberately spoil the mood. The sound of this record is superb and unsettling, instruments panning in and out, reverb treatments giving those instruments unearthly auras, creepy multi-tracking on Gibbons’ voice. This is meticulously made – it’s exactly what they want, for some reason.

That reason is why I keep listening. I’m not sure what would possess Portishead to make an album like this. Multiple runs through it have put a few more pieces in place for me – the vocal line in “Nylon Smile,” for instance, just made my ears hurt the first time I heard it, but now I can sort of sense what Gibbons was going for. Likewise, “The Rip” now sounds ethereally beautiful, whereas at first I found it patchy and meandering, especially when the overpowering synths burst in halfway through.

But a lot of Third still confuses me. Take “Machine Gun,” a determinedly noisy headache that repeats its jackhammer drum beat into your skull for five minutes. Or try “Plastic,” which could have been a classic Portishead song if not for the what-the-fuck arrangement – elements of it keep spinning past your head, while the rug is pulled out from under your feet again and again. It’s a cacophony of crazy, like much of Third, and I find it equal parts dazzling and alienating.

Clearly, the Portishead trio wanted to make something that knocked their old sound on its ass, and they’ve done it. Like Dummy in 1994, this record is beholden to no current trend, and sounds like the work of no one else. In this case, I’m not sure that’s a good thing – you get through the entire 6:27 of the sandpaper-and-splinters “We Carry On,” and you tell me. I’ll keep plugging away at it, but by the end of the year, I predict that I’ll either put this in the top 10 list, or donate it to a library.

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“Stuff People Can’t Believe I Like” Department

I listen to a lot of music. No one style or artist does it for me completely, and while sometimes I’m in the mood for complex, cerebral head music, sometimes I’m ready to shut the ol’ brain off and just enjoy some dumb fun tunes. Particularly if they’re well-made and unpretentious.

You can see where I’d like Def Leppard, then. In many ways, the Sheffield quintet has been an essential part of the soundtrack to my life. I’m sure I heard “Rock of Ages” first, but Hysteria was the first album I bought. (I know, I know, just like everyone.) I remember the comic book video for “Women,” which naturally hooked me. And I remember loving the computerized, processed sound of much of the album – they sounded to me like the future of music, back when I was 13.

Here’s a funny story. My family was visiting my Uncle Bunky in Philadelphia around the time of the album’s release. Now, Bunky was a crusty old fellow, set in his ways, and liable to snap at you for the slightest thing. So my sister and I are listening to Def Leppard in his kitchen, and he walks in, listens for a second, and says this (I kid you not): “You call that music? Back in my day, we’d call that hysteria!” I took great joy in showing him the album cover.

Anyway, I’ve stuck with them ever since. The Hysteria-lite of Adrenalize didn’t quite measure up, but Retroactive was good. The Leps swung with the times on Slang, and as I was just nurturing my Nine Inch Nails fandom, I dug it. But I also loved the return to the classic sound, Euphoria. I’d never call Def Leppard one of the best bands on the planet, but they’ve never made an album I don’t like on some level.

The streak remains unbroken with Songs from the Sparkle Lounge, their 11th album. This one is pitched halfway between the classic rock sound of their covers album Yeah and the more metallic thud of Slang, and is the most live-band studio record they’ve made since… probably High and Dry. What does that all mean to you? Absolutely nothing. Sparkle Lounge is a 35-minute slab of enjoyable, melodic rock and roll, and if you like Leppard, you’ll like this.

The highlights include the singalong “Only the Good Die Young,” the fiery “Bad Actress,” and the ridiculous Queen-style epic ballad “Love.” The unquestionable lowlight is Tim McGraw’s vocal cameo on first single “Nine Lives,” but it’s over pretty quickly, so don’t fret. Otherwise, Sparkle Lounge is a long-haired dance of joy. I had fun listening to Leppard 20 years ago, and I have fun listening to them today. I’m not ashamed.

I’m usually not ashamed to be a Madonna fan, either, but have you seen the cover of her new one, Hard Candy? I bought it with a sense of furtive embarrassment, as if I had to get it under cover before anyone saw it.

Madonna’s a guilty pleasure, I’ll grant you, but I’ve rarely felt as guilty as I did buying Hard Candy, mostly because I knew it would suck. It’s a contractual obligation record, Madge’s last for Warner Bros. before her all-encompassing LiveNation deal kicks in. That means she probably didn’t try very hard, and a cursory glance at the contributors list confirms it.

The particular genius of Madonna has always been her ability to surround herself with cutting-edge talent. She has very little musical skill of her own, but she has an uncanny sense of the next thing in pop music, the next bend in the road, and she molds those innovations to her own style. She can make anything into pop music, and when she’s really on – see her work with William Orbit on Ray of Light, and with Mirwais Ahmadzai on Music – she offers more pleasure than guilt.

So what to make of her collaborations here with Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and the Neptunes? Here’s a who’s-who of current pop royalty, a crass attempt to grab hold of trendy radio sounds and ride them to the bank – Madonna was knocking radio-pop on its ass before some of these guys could even read. This isn’t an art project, it’s a stab at commercial success, a credibility grab that’s so sad because it’s so unnecessary.

The music, of course, just isn’t very good. I like “4 Minutes,” the Timbaland-by-the-numbers single, but that sound grows old over the course of an hour-long dance record. Some of these tunes, like the ass-achingly long “Incredible,” stretch their flimsy melodies to the breaking point, and some of them, like “Beat Goes On,” don’t have any melodies at all. It’s a plastic record about sex and dancing, and it doesn’t melt in your mouth as much as stick in your throat.

As a longtime Madonna fan (honest), I can only hope this is a one-time collapse, a symptom of the ticking clock on her contract. Listening to Hard Candy, an album as creatively dry and musically dull as Madonna’s critics mistakenly expect each time out, is like coming down off a sugar buzz. I like fizzy, disposable pop, but this just isn’t very good, and is much more disposable than most of Madonna’s work.

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“God, This Year is Shaping Up Nicely” Department

So about three years ago, I got turned on to this band called Waking Ashland. They were on Tooth and Nail Records at the time, and their debut album, Composure, was produced by Lou Giordano, who has worked with Paul Westerberg, Husker Du and Sunny Day Real Estate, to name a few. What sold me, though, was this recommendation: “It’s piano-pop. You like piano-pop!”

I do, indeed, like me some piano-pop. Waking Ashland was the project of pianist-singer Jonathan Jones, and Composure was pretty good stuff. Subsequent releases Telescopes and The Well were also pretty good stuff. And yet, somehow I failed to review any of them, bar a couple of mentions in my annual Fifty Second Week roundup. (I must have been having a bad day when I reviewed The Well, too – it’s much better than I remembered.)

I’m not sure why, but Waking Ashland is a band I just didn’t keep up with. It was always a surprise when I saw new albums from them in the record store, and I was equally surprised to find out just last week that they’d called it quits. My indifference is strange – I like the band well enough, and I think Jones is a competent songwriter with a sweet voice and a way with the piano keys. Yet once a year or so, I found myself catching up with developments in their career.

Like now. With Waking Ashland a thing of the past, Jones has gone on to form a new band called We Shot the Moon. As always, I was taken by surprise when I saw the record on the shelf, complete with a little sticker informing me of Jones’ participation. And I vowed, this time, I’d give Jones his due with a full review.

We Shot the Moon’s debut is called Fear and Love. You may be expecting a continuation of the piano-pop sound of Waking Ashland, and you’ll get some of that, but where that band was a pop outfit with guitars, We Shot the Moon is a rock band with a piano. The songs are simpler, the choruses more energetic, the amps cranked up, and the overall vibe more aggressive. Imagine Ben Folds fronting Weezer and you have the idea.

We Shot the Moon is a more direct band than Ashland – just check the 2:33 opening track, “The Waters Edge.” It starts with a driving rock beat and a bog-simple chord progression, but then the piano comes in for the “whoa-oh” chorus, and it takes off. There are no orchestrated epics here like “Sing Me to Sleep” – the closest is “Tunnel Vision,” a bedroom-studio ballad that almost sounds out of place.

Jones has kept his penchant for sweet hooks. “Sway Your Head” makes a nice first single, its breezy chord pattern driven forward by the pounding piano before the radio-ready chorus. (And another “woah-oh.” Has Jones been listening to the Alarm?) “On Your Way” whips out the vocoder, but doesn’t embarrass itself – the song has a nice refrain. While there are fewer grab-your-ear hooks with this new band, Fear and Love is another good record from Jonathan Jones, one that sounds tailor-made to get him some wider exposure. I hope it works.

We go from fewer hooks to no hooks at all, and that’s not a bad thing – the new Hammock album arrived in my mailbox the other day. It’s called Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow, and it’s ridiculously beautiful.

Hammock is Marc Byrd (of the Choir) and Andrew Thompson, and over three albums and an EP, they’ve revived, refined and perfected the instrumental shoegazer sound. What does that mean? It means dense clouds of otherworldly guitar, floating all around you, while other noises waft in and out, as if from someone else’s dream. It means music that surrounds you and lifts you from the ground effortlessly, music that uses formlessness as a virtue, music that spills out over the lines and colors in your entire world.

Okay, here’s the most practical description I can give you. You know how some bands fill in the spaces between their songs with ambient interludes, little drones or pretty reverbed guitar bits? (Like the first 40 seconds of the new Coldplay single, for example.) Imagine an entire album of those, only ten times more gorgeous, and you’ve got the idea.

Most Hammock albums use drums or drum patterns to move the music forward. Not this one. Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow is a recording of a live performance composed for an art show – unless I’m mistaken, it was Hammock’s first live appearance – and it’s all crashing waves of ambience. Byrd’s guitar tones are amazing as always, sounding like something played in an alien atmosphere, and there are contributions by his wife Christine Glass Byrd on angelic vocals, and Matt Slocum (of Sixpence None the Richer) on cello. You won’t notice them unless you’re looking for them, though – the whole album is a warm blanket of sound that covers you from first note to last.

I know what you’re thinking. There are no words, there are no melodies to speak of, there are no hooks. Why would I listen to this for an hour? And I’ll tell you, it’s because you won’t hear anything this consistently beautiful again this year, unless Hammock puts out something new. Head on over here and listen for yourself. I like them all, but if I had to recommend one, it would be this new one. Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow is Hammock’s most unearthly, most soul-filling album, and I can’t praise it highly enough.

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“The Next Best Thing to Being There” Department

Two years ago, I saw one of the best concerts of my life.

Dweezil Zappa had put together this traveling tribute to his late father, the brilliant Frank Zappa, and he’d called up some of the luminaries from Frank’s old bands to join him. He called it Zappa Plays Zappa, and while my expectations were low – Dweezil has never been his father’s equal, and most of Frank’s music is nearly impossible to play – I was knocked out of my seat. The show lasted three and a half hours, the setlist was full of incredibly difficult songs, and the band was perfect. Plus, I got to hang out with Dr. Tony Shore, who’s a bigger Zappa nut than I am.

I know, you missed it – you should have been there. But now you can see and hear what it was like with the Zappa Plays Zappa CD and DVD releases. Let me just say this up front – once again, the Zappa family has done a number on fans with the options. You’ll find a single-CD edit of the show and a double-DVD full presentation, but don’t settle for just buying both – get the five-disc “Fan Pak” instead. For less than $40, you get the full concert on two DVDs and three CDs. It’s well worth it.

I can’t even tell you how great this band is. Seeing some of these musical acrobatics in person was amazing – it was my first real proof that something like “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” could be played live on stage by actual people. The guitar wankery goes a little overboard by the end, Dweezil trading endless licks with Steve Vai, but to see drummer Terry Bozzio play and sing “Punky’s Whips,” then take on “The Black Page,” is revelatory. And to hear the band come together for fantastic versions of “Peaches En Regalia,” “Re-Gyptian Strut” and a bring-the-house-down “Sofa,” well… it’s magic.

Sadly, I will never see Frank Zappa play live. But this is the next best thing – a fine, fitting tribute to the man’s music, played by his adoring son. (Dweezil even changed up his guitar playing, finding tones and phrases his father may have used – you have to hear his take on “Black Napkins.”) Zappa Plays Zappa was a high point in my concert-going life, and now it’s a high point in my DVD collection. Fans of either Zappa should check it out.

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“Man Oh Man, Look at All the Words Up There!” Department

Yeah, yeah. Okay. I’m done. This was a chattier column than I expected, but after last week’s cop-out, I figured I owed you. Next week, Elvis Costello’s Momofuku, which has already been described to me as his best album in 20 years. (Sure it is…) And maybe a few others, and maybe another Doctor Who review. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

See you in line Tuesday morning.