Beth Gibbons' voice provided the backdrop for many coming-of-age grrrls in the 1990s, from Tank Girl to Liv Tyler's character in "Stealing Beauty." Her band Portishead dominated MTV and certain radio stations for a while in 1994 with the single "Sour Times." While I liked the song myself back then, I'd never felt compelled to buy the disc. I thought it sounded a little too morose, as I'd already come of age. But when I finally heard the entire CD, one afternoon at the hairdresser, I immediately became enchanted. I was getting "chunks" in my hair a time-consuming process. As I sat in the chair, having bands of my hair painted and wrapped in foil, the voice encouraged to me to join her modern world. Portishead's mellow trip-hop for the masses was the perfect music for my makeover. Their dots and loops were as enhanced as my contrasting stripes of blond hair.
Gibbons has now stepped out of that world, and gone back in time. She and Paul Webb (of Talk Talk) who's working under the alias Rustin Man here, have recorded a CD that sounds unlike anything else recorded after about 1975. At least not anything on the radar of a former hair-chunker and grrrl watcher. The disc, titled Out of Season, was recorded using old-fashioned tape instead of digital technology, and according to Gibbons' Web site, all of the arrangements could have been played in the 1940s. Each song on the disc sounds like a different decade, but none of them really sound of this decade.
It's a mostly solemn music. And to help with the transition from the world of computers, commuting and complications, and its accompanying loud music, Gibbons and Man provide transportation with the cinematic sounds in the disc's opening. The sound of wind blowing, first from a distance, then closer and louder, works to carry the listener into the music. The wind is followed by an ominous rumble and some high warbling, which may or may not be human. The sounds, kind of lonely and spooky, made me think of Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," which, like this disc was more subdued than anything else around it and seemed to blow in from another time. But before a full minute of these spooky sounds passes, birds start to chirp and the mood lightens up. As Man gently strums a guitar, Gibbons sings, "God knows how I adore life." It could be an old spiritual.
I never noticed the richness of Gibbons' voice when listening to Portishead. They were among the first to meld trip-hop and pop, and it was hard not to get caught up in the beats. On Out of Season, Gibbons' voice takes the spotlight. There's a quivery sound, similar to Billie Holiday's, which gets lost amid Portishead's stops and starts.
On the first few listens, Out of Season was too mellow. Each song begins with very little instrumentation, and slowly opens up. But by the fourth track, things start to swing. Gibbons and Man shake off the dust that blew in with them in their Old West opening. "Romance" has a full orchestra. Gibbons could be surrounded by cigarette smoke and sequins, with the words pouring out of half of a wry smile. "You know what they say about romance," she sings. But it comes out sounding like "You know what they shay about romansh." I can't tell if she's about to laugh or cry. With a swelling orchestra behind her, she goes on, singing, "Better the thought than the feeling/ It's plain to see/ All the things we suffer/ From the hands of humanity." As the music starts to swing, ever so slightly, she says, "But that ain't me." The music is lovely, and sometimes a little melodramatic, like '40s/'50s orchestral music.
"Spider Monkey" starts with a sparse, repeated keyboard phrase and a spacey warbling. It's a cold sound, until Man kicks in the extra instruments. Then it becomes lush and atmospheric, and reminds me of the Cocteau Twins. The next track, "Resolve," changes mood completely. Here Gibbons is grounded and folky, and there's no wry little smile on her face. Then the swank orchestra reappears on the song "Drake." It sounds full of intrigue and furtive glances under heavily lined eyes, like one of those Burt Bacharach songs from the late '60s. Gibbons and Man manage to capture many moods for a quiet little disc,.
A lot of songs on Out of Season deal with time. Two songs start with the word "time," and one has "time" in its title. It's hard not to notice a song called "Funny Time of Year" at this time of year. My house is bustling with the sounds of this time of year: children rhapsodizing about toys, debating whether Santa could REALLY be watching, and throwing tantrums as they crash from a cookie-induced high. Out of Season has been a perfect antidote. It's not overt, demanding or sticky. I think it will be a perennial favorite.