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Portishead
PNYC
London

On PNYC, Bristol, England's Portishead indulges itself and its film interest; this is the soundtrack to a concert film recorded and filmed at New York's Roseland Ballroom (except two tracks, recorded elsewhere). The idea of a live record from a band with only two full-length records is a bit strange, as all of the 11 tracks on PNYC are nearly note-for-note replications of the album versions culled from their two releases. The inclusion of a 30-piece orchestra seems like a fantastic idea, giving the band a chance to organically reproduce what they normally use machines to do. What makes Portishead interesting is its combination of slow beats, cinematic soundscapes and closed-in paranoia. Normally, its adventurousness is of a vertical kind, piling weirdness on top of weirdness, but here the added instrumentation takes up sonic space in a much different manner. The claustrophobia the band usually creates by placing so many sounds in close proximity is replaced by agoraphobia -- with the band afraid to step into the wide-open spaces the orchestra affords. Portishead doesn't use the enormity of the ensemble as a jumping-off point. Instead, the colossal group moves in a pack -- dense with sound, but not packed in so tightly -- almost as if comforted and self-absorbed by its size.

Even with all of this newfound room, the band does manage to get twisted around themselves, and that's a good thing. With subtle strings swelling behind a simple acoustic guitar, "Over" takes its time getting into gear, but when the drums kick in and DJ Andy Smith burns a needle scratching, the track instantly switches from baroque pop to ominously dark trip-hop. Elsewhere, on "Only You," the ensemble channels the eeriness of blaxploitation soundtracks (think the climactic music of Superfly) but with a reserved air, before a lounge-y electric piano solo delivers a way out. Instead of creepiness heaped on top of itself, it's the sound of one thing running into another. The dizzy guitars hit the horns of "Strangers" before the string section rears up with the coda. The orchestra comes in to counterpoint the crisp brass of "All Mine."

Singer Beth Gibbons provides a point of focus during all of this, sounding as if she were unable to stop the voices within her from coming out. Her over-the-top, unearthly presence wavers between the drugged-out chanteuse of "All Mine" and the howling banshee on the slowed, heavy and blistering version of "Sour Times." The latter of which finds her screaming the song's hook, "Nobody loves me, it's true," at the end in a way that suggests nobody ever will, either.

-- David Simutis

Amy Rigby
Middlescence
Koch International

Middlescence is a word coined by Rigby, a wiseass, thirtysomething singer/songwriter, to describe the "time of life between arrested development and hard-won maturity." In a culture that refuses to allow people, particularly women, to age gracefully, and regards older people as human garbage rather than elders with valuable knowledge to pass on, it's easy to understand Rigby's ironic attempt to come to terms with her uneasy position on the social totem pole, somewhere between the tail end of the baby boomers and the rapidly graying vanguard of Gen X.

Rigby has a pleasing, if limited, voice, which isn't always a liability in the singer/songwriter biz if you're a Dylan or an Alanis. The more pressing problem is Rigby's schizophrenic artistic stance. Half the time she's tossing off sarcastic bons mots, half the time she's trying for poignant insights, but most of the time she lacks the biting humor to bring off the former and the depth of insight to make the latter ring true. When the formula works, as it does on the rocking "Raising the Bar," a humorous meditation on approaching middle age, and "Invisible," which takes on the same subject with a slightly more jaundiced eye, Rigby can be smart, sympathetic and affecting. But much of the time, the songs seem half finished, and Rigby's vocals tentative.

The music on Middlescence has a glossy, pleasing pop sheen, but like much of the album, when you strip away the superficial gloss, there's nothing left. The arrangements, a bossa nova and a couple of three-chord rockers, tickle the memory banks, but after the initial thrill of recognition, there's no follow-through.

Artists such as Randy Newman and Patti Smith have turned pop cliches inside out with interesting results, and one gets the impression that Rigby would like to do the same. But it takes more than a clever chord progression and a couple of smart remarks to do the job.

-- j. poet

Travis Tritt
No More Lookin' Over My Shoulder
Warner Brothers

Baseball legend Satchel Paige's famous quote warns not to look over your shoulder, because something might be gaining on you. And if that's true, then Travis Tritt better keep his eyes straight ahead in the wake of his latest release -- unless he wants to gaze right into the visage of mediocrity. Oh, I forgot -- he probably does that every day while shaving.

It wasn't always that way, of course. Back in the good ol' days of the early '90s, a young and hungry Tritt unabashedly proved you could love George Jones, the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd at the same time, spewing forth a score of shit-kickin' singles ("Here's a Quarter,""T-R-O-U-B-L-E") that raised the roof off his more conservative cohorts.

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