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Portishead: PNYC (1998)

June 6, 2013

portishead nyc live

Roll: 4-12-14
Album: Portishead, PNYC: Roseland NYC Live (1998)

It’s always bothered me, to an unreasonable, potentially violent degree, that Portishead get filed under “electronic” in record shops. At one store I even went as far as to refile them into “rock” while the clerks weren’t looking.

Though turntables and the odd Moog texture have always been a part of their set up, there was never anything particularly “electronic” about their sound or their approach (especially prior to their 2008 album Third). No more than, say, synth-heavy rock bands like Duran Duran or A Flock of Seagulls.

It wasn’t the ’80s anymore though and in the ’90s electronica was as much of a genre buzzword as grunge. And an unavoidable pigeonhole anything slightly glanced at by a synth (which had become a bit of a dirty word in the pop world) got slotted into. If anything, Portishead were more of a guitar-oriented rock band closer in alignment with contemporaries such as Radiohead than their predecessors Eurythmics—who never were, but should have been, filed under “electronic” along side Kraftwerk.

PNYC: Roseland NYC Live is even less electronic than their studio albums, with live drums, bass and orchestra providing the backdrop for Beth Gibbons’ vocals, Geoff Barrow‘s scratching and Adrian Utley‘s iconic (and criminally underrated) spy-film guitar. The orchestra in particular really breathes new life into the songs and gives them a warmth and passion that was not exactly missing from Dummy and Portishead, but emphasizes what was already there. In a sense, PNYC acts as both a greatest hits collection and a remix album, improving on ten of its eleven tracks.

Interestingly, the one real reinterpretation might be the least successful. Their break-out single “Sour Times” gets a fairly drastic overhaul which decimates the original hook. On the one hand, it’s the most interesting take on the album, on the other it’s almost viscerally frustrating to listen to. I find my brain spiraling into vertigo as it tries to reconcile what it’s hearing with what it expects to hear. That said, if you’re somehow not familiar with the original version, it’s equally as strong a noir torch song as anything else off their first two albums—or anything Shirley Bassey ever did—but it’s a bit of a sour note none-the-less. On yet another hand, any discomfort might be worth it for the track’s absolutely incendiary finish—one of the finest moments in ’90s rock in my books.

As goes for the album as a whole. If I end up on that famous desert island, and am only allowed one disc from each decade, PNYC might just be my choice for representing the ’90s.

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