Released: August, 1994 – 22 years ago
Portishead’s debut is a dazzling amalgam of downbeat, soul and funk-infused acid house, incorporating equal measures of hip hop beats, electronica, 60s spy movie scores, and torch jazz singer-inspired vocals (think Sade meets Billy Holiday). Helping define the genera of trip-hop, this album merged the UK dance scene with the indie world. Brilliant!
The Classic Pick is a weekly feature at 4 p.m. Monday-Friday on The Home Stretch, sponsored by the Good Oak Bar and curated by Kris Kerry. Each Monday at 4 p.m. Kris stops by KXCI’s studio to give us insight on this classic album at 91.3 FM and KXCI.org.
Portishead formed in 1991 in Bristol, England. They are named after a nearby coastal town of the same name. Originally a duo, consisting of Beth Gibbons (vocals) and Geoff Barrow (keyboards, programmer, drums, scratching), they added a third member, Adrian Utley (guitar, bass) while recording Dummy.
Dummy helped cement the reputation of Bristol, England, as the birthplace of “trip-hop,” a fairly novel genre in 1994 when it was often referred to as “the Bristol sound” and sometimes as “gothic hip-hop.” Trip-hop as a genre is based in electronica, but also incorporates soul, funk, hip-hop, jazz, Jamaican dub, and sometimes ambient and experimental elements. Bristol is also home to trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack and Tricky, and other late 90s trip hop acts like Morcheeba.
At first Dummy received only modest chart success outside the UK, barely breaching the Billboard 200 in the US, it peaked at no. 2 on the UK Album chart and saw the release of three singles: “Numb,” “Sour Times,” and “Glory Box.” The album slowly caught on in the US and Canada where it eventually received gold and platinum certifications respectively. In the UK, Dummy eventually achieved double platinum status.
In 1995, Dummy won the Mercury Music Prize, beating out PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love and Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. The Mercury Music Prize is an annual award for the best album from the UK and Ireland. Over time Dummy has grown in prestige, being included in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The release has also been in various “greatest ever” lists by Spin, Pitchfork, NME, The New York Times, Mojo, and Q Magazine among others.
Dummy was recorded in State of Art Studio and Coach House Studios. Both were located in Bristol, but have since closed. Portishead gets co-production credit with Adrian Utley. Utley, who has recorded under various other names and projects, led production on Dummy. Utley and band mate Geoff Barrow have also produced albums by The Coral and the Horrors and have contributed to releases by many other acts, including Primal Scream, Neneh Cherry, Paul Weller, and Depeche Mode. The album was engineered by Dave McDonald, whose contribution was such that the band sometimes refers to him as the fourth member of Portishead.
The cover image is a still of vocalist Beth Gibbons taken from the short spy film, To Kill a Dead Man. The film and correlating soundtrack, both written by Portishead in early 1994, earned the band their initial record contract. The plot revolves around an assassination and it’s aftermath.
Portishead have only released two other studio albums since the release of Dummy: the self-titled Portishead in 1997, and 2008’s Third. Both are very good, but stylistically a bit different.
Dummy is the subject of 33 1/3 book series. Written by RJ Wheaton and released in 2011.
Portishead do not tour often. When they do, they primarily only schedule European dates. The last time they toured the US was in 2011.