-- Hobart Rowland


This is the CD on which Portishead loses their element of surprise. When the band's debut, Dummy, came out in late 1994, it was a revelation: hip-hop reinvented as torch songs for the terminally languid. Songwriter Geoff Barrow slowed mechanized breakbeats down to a crawl, surrounding them with soundtrack samples, reverb-drenched guitars and quiet keyboards. Singer Beth Gibbons delivered on that promise with the voice of a Valium-encrusted siren -- sexy and seemingly resigned to despair. The resulting noir ambiance managed to sound modern and classic in the same breath, and such stylishness never came at the expense of the songs. That "Sour Times" became an unlikely hit presents the strongest (if also the most superficial) proof of the band's attention to such niceties as melody and sturdy songcraft. Coupled with Tricky's hippie-hop minimalism, Portishead's sound essentially created a genre ("trip-hop") and a direction for introverted techno-geeks.

With such a style already firmly established on the band's first CD, Portishead, having none of its predecessor's unexpectedness, might have been doomed to suffer in comparison. Surprise, however, is about the only thing the band has lost on this release. "Cowboys" opens Portishead with the news that the band's aesthetic -- and writing skill -- remains intact. As with most of Dummy's tunes, the song's lackadaisical drumbeats flirt with inertia, its instrumentation consisting of a subtle organ, well-placed scratches and a guitar part that recalls nothing so much as the buzz of a telephone left off the hook. Gibbons's singing is more distorted, more emotive, and generally more odd, but such subtle shifts reach the same ethereal ends at which Portishead excels.

The rest of Portishead expands on that basic idea, and the results are elegantly depressive -- and vice versa. "All Mine" betrays the band's soundtrack fixation more clearly than ever; its opening horn line sounds exactly like a James Bond theme song. "Undenied" starts as a soft lullaby but ultimately evokes an entirely different sort of nodding off. If ever a band's sound was perfectly suited for a theremin, Portishead's is it; "Humming" provides ample evidence of this. "Only You" and "Elysium" substitute twang for jazzier guitar lines.

Throughout, Gibbons sounds beautifully tormented, but her pose avoids the kind of overwrought affectation capable of ruining such a mood. She delivers nothing as immediately gripping as "Sour Times," but ultimately Portishead equals Dummy with regard to skill and atmosphere. And while those attributes might not be so surprising anymore, the songs themselves are still unpredictable, still evocative, still great. (****)

-- Keven McAlester

When I Was Born for the 7th Time
Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.

Sometimes the most universal music comes from the most provincial places. I've never been there, but I imagine Leicester, England, as a quaint university town, where choral groups battle a second-rate symphony for cultural supremacy. Though now based in London, Cornershop staggered onto the Leicester scene in 1993, a ragtag group of East Indians who adopted an English stereotype (the immigrant as bodega owner) as their proud, defiant name.

The band's 1995 release, Woman's Gotta Have It, was at its best at its most exotic, with Eastern melodies and beats played by sitars and tablas. The other half was fairly ordinary: indie guitar-rock with a little masala sprinkled over it. That makes When I Was Born for the 7th Time even more revelatory. The song that will be mentioned the most, a Punjabi version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," is important as a reclamation of the band's Indian roots. But it isn't as thrilling as the CD's opening accordion flourish, which announces the arrival of a group unafraid to mix musical cultures, from the Cajun sounds of Louisiana and boho poetry of New York to the dance beats and hip-hop scratches of underground London.

Still, I'm partial to bassist/vocalist Tjinder Singh's more conventional pop structures, especially "Sleep on the Left Side" and "Brimful of Asha," which are the latest in a long, proud tradition of tunes about the power of good music. But even such slight, goofy dance shuffles as "Funky Days Are Back Again" and "Good Shit" are too amiable to be faulted much for their hippy-dippy lyrics. An experiment that could have ended disastrously -- Allen Ginsberg's poem "When the Light Appears Boy" spoken over the sound of the polyglot streets -- works surprisingly well. Singh's duet with Paula Fraser of Tarnation is less successful, because it's just a conventional country song that happens to have flute in it.

The rest of the disc is filled out by dance-floor hybrids. The sitar on 7th Time isn't quite as prominent as it was on Woman's Gotta Have It, but the new CD's "It's Indian Tobacco My Friend," with its odd vocal modalities and high-hat splashes, is Western music that could be conjured only by Easterners. A current cliche is that we're now all citizens of the world. In Cornershop's case, it's actually the truth. (*** 1/2)

-- Keith Moerer

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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