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DUMMY

Portishead

"The Bristol sound" catapulted trip hop to the forefront of popular music in the 90's, thanks in large part to this debut album from Portishead. The unsettling-yet-sublime "Dummy" is a haunting masterclass in vibe. We discuss the band's approach to creating the sound and explore the mystique they created around themselves.

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Episode 003: Portishead's "Dummy" transcript powered by Sonix—easily convert your audio to text with Sonix.

Episode 003: Portishead's "Dummy" was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the latest audio-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors. Sonix is the best audio automated transcription service in 2020. Our automated transcription algorithms works with many of the popular audio file formats.

You're listening to TuneDig, a podcast for music lovers. The premise is simple: in each episode, we dig deep into an album we love and then we give away a copy to you of that album on vinyl. Go to TuneDig.com To see what's up for grabs and learn more about us.

We're talking about Portishead's "Dummy".

You were saying before we started recording I thought was so funny that it's very inappropriate dinner party music, I, I would disagree. I think it's a cool mood setter. But you would argue, I think that it's too heavy for that.

The mood of this album is inescapable. I don't know how to get back out of it. One of the more interesting things about it to me is the way that it almost hints that you're going to break out this immense dark landscape of just sadness. I don't know how I don't have any good synonyms for sad here that work as well as just feeling sad.

It's melancholy. But I think most people take the immensity of that atmosphere. And the whole point of the record is five. The band themselves have said that. Right. And they're like, yeah, this has vibe. I'm trying to set a vibe. Let me put this on to do just that. And you would argue that the vibe is too heavy, it's overpowering. It's like when you put one really strong spice in a dish and it becomes the whole taste dinner. Taste that.

A quote I pulled out from reading some more about this. I especially enjoy reading the reviews that came out around the time that the albums come out, that some of my favorite research for this podcast in me in their review just said this is without question a sublime debut album, but so very, very sad. And I feel like that's that's exactly the way that I feel about it. And I learned so much about the way that it was recorded and produced in a way that really makes me appreciate it.

It's so hard to isolate the elements because the atmosphere is so heavy in this record. I could anyway only take it and the thing as a whole instead of the pieces. But the pieces are really, really cool. And I think it kind of a Herculean effort to get them all together and all just write.

Talking about the pieces is an interesting component of this record because learning about some of the ways it was recorded was astonishing to me. It feels like it flows so well that everything kind of comes together in this really unique way to make this single esthetic that flows throughout the whole album that never really changes that much.

And yet the drums were created and recorded outside of any music being written at all, just purely recording drum parts to sample so that they could get feel and recordings and then re sampled their own drumming back into the songs that they would later create. So the drummer Cliff, he's had a lot of times I wasn't playing to anything, so I had no idea what I was playing to. And it was about balancing all the relative volumes of all the parts, the level of the bass drum against the snare drum or the high hat or the symbols. So very strictly controlled playing and then just recording it. It really great quality, but way quieter than anybody ever plays drums. And so we felt like that was a big part of the sound in a way that it created this detailed, unusual feel, because instead of basically writing songs that normal band would they were trying to create just sounds that they could reuse and recompose into the music that they would end up creating. And he felt like he could barely recognize his own playing on this record once they put the sounds together.

That's crazy. That's really crazy. My first exposure to something like that was death grips.

Those two records are the same Zakhele, it's all program stuff, but it comes from his crazy, frenetic, like free jazz drumming, and this is the slow equivalent to that fast thing where it's refracted into a process beyond recognition.

That was another interesting thing. Once they had their songs engineered on twenty four track tape, they took that recording and they fed it back into the samplers and some material. They pressed on vinyl to then go back and more create the music itself from their own samples that they recorded and they rerecorded on top of themselves through sic. It's almost like you can start to piece together how did they make it sound so distant? It's it's because they literally created abstractions of their own music before they were putting it back together.

Ekos It's gross, but that story definitely adds to the the legacy, the weight of this record for me. You call it a distance. Jeff Barrow, who I think is a really funny dude, has like a deep, dark, nihilistic sense of humor. He's one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram, which is a weird thing to jump to. And talking about this episode, he told The Wire in an interview, It's the air around the thing. And I think if you could put this whole record in a single sentence, that's it. Right? It's just it's the air around the thing.

It's not even the thing itself. It's it's the ghosts and the echoes rather than the melodies. He said, well, we're trying to do is create this air, this atmosphere. It's the stuff that's in between the high hat and the snare that you can't hear. But if it wasn't there, you would notice it. It would be wrong.

So I think it's really interesting, not that they were trying to capture a thing and compress the thing to space, but to excavate it from the center of a thing that they were doing. They were like trying to reverse engineer the creative process in that way.

It did make sense to learn that Jeff worked as an errand boy in Bristol's Catell studios while massive attack was recording Blue Lines.

And then he would the way that it was put in several places, steel studio time, late at night in between when they were doing their recordings to start working on this music, that one of the more interesting things about. Portishead, as they exist now with the way that they had to encourage Jeff especially to just start putting music down in recordings. He was a part of the scene. He wanted to keep making music. He was especially driven.

He was doing a lot of gigs, but had to really be talked into just putting this down into an album, which is hilarious only in hindsight to think about creating what's now one of the most legendary albums to come out of an entire genre. And you had to talk someone into recording it, that it almost never happened.

Yeah, there's a beauty to that. It's also interesting to learn that a lot of this was formulated in the middle of the night, kind of out of one or maybe two brains, because it definitely has that feel. There's a special a special way to that particular brand of creativity where, like the it's the dead hour, the witching hour. There's almost a danger to it. Like nothing is supposed to be happening. And yet these ghosts are flying around in my brain. And I got to I got to do something about it. So maybe sad isn't the word, but like haunted and haunting ghosts and atmosphere and things beyond the reach of what we have words for all of those things, I think go a little further to describe what this record is and what it's trying to be rather than just I don't know, I think just to call it sad, flattens it out way too much and does it a disservice because it reaches this place of like literal dictionary definition nirvana, where it's like kind of beyond feelings. It's a weird mix of feelings that you can't describe. Maybe there's a word for it in another language, but certainly not in English.

What's a good example of a song or group of songs or a section of this record that really represents that haunted feeling? So the obvious answer for me is, is still going to be glory box.

And to the extent this record can have a single, it is that because it's the best, you know, for however many minutes summation of what this record is trying to do, there is a punch A. There is like a Billie Holiday brightness and despair all in the same thing. And Beth Gibbons performance on that song and elements kind of weave together in a really nice way. So there is an accessibility, there's an inroad because they're like elements you recognize from past lives. Feels like you walk past a machine and it lights up on its own and starts playing this old phonograph song. It's spooky. It's spooky, but it is also kind of comforting. But then there are songs like Roads that to me feel like you're walking down the street on a foggy night and there's sort of an amber 10 from the street lights and a fog and. Oh, can't anybody see this record also gets described as cinematic a lot, right? And I learned when we were researching for this record that they'd made a little short film and their major label backing came from the soundtrack that they had done for this film and seeing the potential and all that. So there is a very visual component to this record that accompanies the whole premise of it, having big atmosphere. Like I think that's where where they're going with that.

I love the glory box example because one of my favorite parts about it matches the way that you've described the journey through that song and how four minutes and 12 seconds everything drops out. A brand new heavy bass comes in.

It's off and you go, oh, something is happening in the song, and then 20 seconds later it drops right back out and goes right into the song and it felt to me like being somewhere strange on a foggy night and a train rolling by really quickly coming up on you really fast and introducing all this new noise and then immediately leaving again like you had never heard it at all.

You know, I thought that that was the second track on the record for a long time. So it was like, oh, this is the single the one story that I really wanted to tell about this record was I also downloaded it in college. It was the band he is legend posted about stuff that they really like.

I think as their bassist Matt had posted about this record, like this is the best late night record. There is no close second. And I was like, oh, my God, I got to I got to find this right now. And the version that I downloaded, the metadata wasn't at all. And so the tracks weren't numbered. And I didn't realize that normally I was much better about making sure that everything was good to go before I started listening, but I didn't with this record. So the songs were alphabetical. So it started with Biscuit and then Glory Box, the last two songs on the record, which are like massive, dark, spacey, heavy. So it's weird for me to listen to the record as it is because it opens up arguably much brighter than the record that I know opening with Biscuit, but very quiet and slinky. It's very like Dick Tracy stepping into a house of deep shadows type of deal. I actually prefer I have it on a playlist on Spotify because I still prefer to listen to it in that order. It feels very strange to me otherwise because it totally recontextualized the record for me.

So that makes me appreciate it that much more as the last song on the record. Like arguably the thing that would go the farthest to build them, an audience they put at the end, like it sort of builds into its own magnum opus, which I think is really, really cool. So they take you through the proverbial fog, the whole record, all these different places. And you, like, peek into these rooms a little bit and it's almost like you're looking in on people alone or having like a really deep conversation or something. And there's a whole feeling of I'm not supposed to be here. There's like an intimacy and a distance in the same way. I think the intimacy comes from Beth's voice, from her performance, very mournful, very emotive. And then the distance comes from the space and the recording. This record is true mastery because it feels like that's done effortlessly the whole time. Right. They deliver it kind of languidly. But I know a lot of effort went into getting it there. But it's good because you can't tell when you're listening to it until you really, really dig in that that is the case.

This is really a fascinating topic to think about. Glory box coming earlier. Because the other thing about that song, and we have to keep talking about Beth Gibbons', she becomes expressive only on this very last song to me. She's sort of back in the mix, almost the rest of the record. Well, she occupies to me that er that they talked about creating and oftentimes the backbeat and the guitar parts kind of switch what parts of the sonic spectrum they're occupying. They kind of rotate around each other, they get quieter and louder and in modulate. But she's always kind of right in the middle of it and she's writing it. She's almost providing like a rhythm section esque sense of the whole thing, moving the record forward. So that's to me what's most interesting about the idea of hearing Glory Box earlier in the album, because when you listen to it in the traditional track listing, it's like by the time you get to this last song, you're like, I guess I understand why you haven't cared that much about singing. It's really hard to spend.

Like, part of what makes this record cool is it's really hard to pin down exactly how it makes you feel or what it's doing in your brain.

Like it's super cool trying to communicate that. I appreciate the restraint that they had in the music because I don't want it to sound like they they literally held back. I think they did the opposite of holding back. But it's it's incredible to think about these people trying to put together this thing that has such a strong esthetic by intentionally restraining still isn't the right word, right. By intentionally channeling things into this very sublime sensation to keep creating this thing over and over again. It almost you can imagine them saying pull back, keep pulling back until it feels a little bit more tense.

But you touched on something interesting, like there's so little because they're trying to sustain. Not movement right there trying to sustain a sensation that hits you once and goes away really quickly.

They're trying to suspend you in midair for like forty five minutes with a feeling that's only supposed to last a moment in your brain. So they play it with time in that way. And to put too much stuff in, to give you too much to move through, I think would achieve the opposite effect from what they were going for. And in general, the true mastery is doing as little as possible to get it perfect, to get it just right. Right. Nothing more than is absolutely necessary. And I think we see that on display here from start to finish. Right.

And it's just incredible that they were able to talk about it. When they talk about creating that air, that's what they're describing. The fact that they could do that intentionally is a level of mastery we don't often experience, which is what makes us stand head and shoulders above almost anything else that was happening in the scene in this decade.

One thing that I think is really interesting from Pitchfork's review of this record touches on how introverted they were or how, I guess, against the idea of being public figures. They were. Mysteries certainly helps this record as well, Pitchfork said. Without a public persona to measure, Gibbon's performance against her presence within the songs was and remains that much more formidable. Pop bands typically like to know who is singing to them and why, even if it's an invented character. But that central mystery only makes them that much more compelling. Who is this woman? And that's something that I've never consciously thought about, but I think also contributes to it. Like you, there's so much soul and so much feeling put into these songs. It feels weird to not know where that's coming from. Like, I think that contributes to the ghostly ness of it too. But that deep well, should have a face, should have a story like we're inherently driven to find out other people's stories, what their deal is. Right. And that's part of the whole package. Like you can't ever take the music just on its face. That's why we have this podcast to learn about the context of where these things came from and what things led to. Right. It's never just the piece of art on its face. You've got to know what's around the frame. And we don't get that with this. And that drives, I think, a lot of a lot of why we continue to dig in deeper and deeper with it.

And I think the influence of Beth Gibbons authentic reluctance can't be understated. Right. Have you heard of have you heard of Lizzie Grant by chance? I'm not. Maybe you know her by her stage name. Lana Del Rey.

If you heard of her, I perhaps have.

No one has made it a longer career of whispering, but she is channeling a caricature of Beth Gibbons that that changes Lana Del Rey totally. For me, there was this authenticity with Beth Gibbons. It wasn't a she didn't put on a mysterious persona in order to provide the atmosphere for this record. One of the reasons that it comes across so real is because it is she was truly reluctant to be a pop star and in fact, never really was. She never wanted to be on the cover of a magazine. There were a lot of stories of her being reluctant to go out on stage and perform anyway, really without shade. When we see a caricature of that bashful, I don't really want to be in the limelight and be sad and mysterious and then not do a ton of interviews and never be really clear about anything or what we like and what we dislike and never have opinions that that came from somewhere who was really just like that.

She provided an archetype for that to be OK, ironically. So because I certainly don't think she intended to provide an archetype either die hero or live long enough to see yourself become Lana Del Rey.

A couple of a couple of additional Beth Givens points. Have you ever watched the Roseland Ballroom performance but also became the live record? So that one's really interesting. I think you would really like. I held off on it because I knew the two records, you know, dummy in the self-titled and was like, there's no way this would be cool live. There's no way this could get pulled off. Right. Because there's so much layering and refraction that goes into it. So I never watched or listened to it until like two or three years ago. And it is phenomenal. It's pseudo in the round in a pretty small room. Everyone's seated and watching. It's like an in store at a bookstore is almost the vibe. It's pretty well lit, which is an interesting choice. And they have a string section. And so there's a massiveness and also an intimacy. And the coolest part of it all, outside of how well the instrumentation has pulled off is how aggressive. Disinterested, she is in anything except a performance and barely even in that the first time I watched it, it was the first live video I'd ever seen of them or her. And she reminded me so much of Marklin, again, being a huge Queens fan. He was always really interesting to me because he would only come up at the beginning of the songs he was singing on and it was gone before the end of the last song he was on cigaret between his fingers clutching the mic for dear life and then giving this roaring, fierce, incredible performance. And just the cognitive dissonance between the intensity of that and the reluctance to be present in any other way around other people was just so gripping.

This passive and active listening stand out really differently on this record, which is not very ever often the case, certainly not to this degree, like one of my favorite examples, and it's tiny.

It's for anybody especially who's never listen to this. Familiarize yourself with a few of the songs. But it could be sweet is my favorite example, because the beginning of it, I remember asking myself, I was listening to it like, oh, this is going to be an uplifting song. It's not.

Don.

The reason that.

They kind of pick you up and make you feel like, oh, we're going to have one nice kind of major key and say, never mind, let's just go back and do what we're doing. And that's a thing you would never catch if you listen to it passively. And that's about halfway into the record, right, where you're like, I'm ready for the pick me up. Yeah. And then still it takes another after that. I mean, then you've got Wandering Star with lyrics like wandering stars for whom it is reserved, the blackness, the darkness forever, some real Sylvia Plath type stuff. The tone of Beth's voice never totally matches the depravity of the thing that she's singing about. There's a sarcasm and that's exactly the time. Another thing you need active listening to get to you. Right. And then it takes until it's a fire to get something in a major key.

So redoes.

That's funny, because that wasn't on the original version of the record, the original UK release, so it's really funny that somebody almost put it in their later years as like relenting a little bit like, all right, we give it's fine, but it does feel different than the other songs.

So it's interesting that it's slotted toward the middle and it's got this organ in the background of it. And so you take this out of place, barely noticeable kind of major key situation with an organ. And it's got this almost sarcastic church music tone to it. But it's got a way, darker tone to it naturally. Right. But it's it's a great example as well of them being able to create that air in a way that no one else could really replicate. Mean Beth continues to be, to me, the clearest example of the harder you would try to sound like Beth Gibbons, the further away you would get from ever sounding like what she sounded like. So those are great examples to me. I'm glad that they had a few of these. I'll start feeling things or slightly different keys and ways of moving through things because they show you that it wasn't just formulaic. They could do it whenever they wanted to. And being able to create air on demand, it's pretty amazing.

I think if you went track by track and tried to describe each of the songs sonically, it would be like none of those can exist on the same record. But they work so well again because of that air, because of something sonically where they compress them kind of in the same shapes.

Everything sounds like Portishead, whatever that means. So we could cut there theoretically or we talk about one more thing at me, Steve Jobs. So one more thing that I want to mention about Beth Gibbons' is the cover of the song Black Sabbath that she did. Have you ever heard that? It is amazing. It is so good.

Now, that's a connection I would have never made, but that's another band who created a mystique on demand from things that were just traditionally put together by other bands all of the time.

And honestly, the first Black Sabbath record is a great analog for this record. They're totally different sonically, but it's very much the same. It's like essentially one long jam with a sound that they were tapped into a thing and just went, and it's super, super, super dark. But it's also really powerful.

Totally. Both of them became the soundtrack to an entire Zygi.

Nobody ever did it better. A lot of people tried, but nobody ever did it better than they did. And those are both debut albums.

Plus, they beat Oasis in ninety five for an award.

And that's really the most important part of this whole thing. Absolutely. Anyway, here's Wonderwall.

Shall make it any time to TuneDig.com to sign up for our emails and click the link in the email when you want to win, that's a. I never.

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Episode 010: Kanye West’s “The College Dropout”

TuneDig Episode 010: Kanye West’s “The College Dropout”

The Kanyepalooza™ of the past few months made us question if Ye ever actually made anything that made him worth all this fuss. (SPOILER: He did.) This investigation wasn’t as simple as missing the old Kanye — because every Ye fan seems to have a different favorite album — but we wound up looking back with admiration on the first time Donda’s son held the zeitgeist in his hands and turned it upside-down.

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SEASON 1 EPISODES

Episode 008: John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”

TuneDig Episode 008: John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”

All paths led to this. Season 1 closes on a sublime note, exploring the profound power of one of the most important albums in American history, full stop. We give thanks to Coltrane's cosmically attuned hymn of gratitude for the holy spirit he saw flowing through everything. Yeah, we dare say this one got downright profound.

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Episode 007: Hüsker Dü’s “Zen Arcade”

TuneDig Episode 007: Hüsker Dü’s “Zen Arcade”

The antagonistically long, spastically eclectic Zen Arcade is about growing out of where you’re from and into a form you don’t yet fit. For better or worse, it’s as punk as punk gets. Join the fun as two grown-up punks reckon with the good, the bad, and the WTF of a hardcore staple they’d missed until long after their best pitting years.

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Episode 007: Hüsker Dü’s “Zen Arcade”

TuneDig Episode 006: Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!”

Consider this our RT of FX’s John Landgraf, who warned the world to “underestimate Donald Glover at your own peril.” This episode finds us talking a little about Gambino’s afro-futurist awakening on “Awaken” as a vehicle to talk a lot about Glover’s many punk rock masterstrokes.

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Episode 005: Soundgarden’s “Superunknown”

TuneDig Episode 005: Soundgarden’s “Superunknown”

The spirit of "Superunknown" perhaps is best captured by an offhand press quote from Kim Thayil: “Human beings are a wild composite of temporal events and insights and motivations and restrained behaviors ... and memories both delusional and accurate.” In this episode, we reflect on a masterpiece that captured the contradictions and complexity of raw emotion, and we explore the black hole-sized void torn open by the loss of a musical titan.

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Episode 004: “Dopesmoker” by Sleep

TuneDig Episode 004: “Dopesmoker” by Sleep

It’s easy to make a punchline out of this “album” (read: single 63-minute song) and the circumstances surrounding it, but as we explore the music that wound up becoming a heavy music landmark, we found something profound. On Sleep's "Dopesmoker", the journey really is the destination after all.

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Episode 003: “Dummy” by Portishead

TuneDig Episode 003: “Dummy” by Portishead

Portishead’s dark, timeless mystique is hard to capture, so instead we mostly meditate on “the air around the thing.” Venture into the fog with Bristol’s anti-heroes and the cinematic landscape of what the BBC called “quite simply one of the greatest debut albums of the 1990s.”

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Episode 002: “Houses of the Holy” by Led Zeppelin

TuneDig Episode 002: “Houses of the Holy” by Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin's follow-up to "IV" arrived as they were becoming the biggest rock band in the world—but they didn't choose to play it safe. We discuss all the twists and turns amassed on this behemoth of an album and give you some new ways to hear these nearly 50-year-old songs that still feel fresh.

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Episode 001: “Stankonia” by Outkast

TuneDig Episode 001: “Stankonia” by Outkast

We kick off the podcast with one of our all-time favorite records, embedded deeply in our hometown. It turns out the south did have something to say, and it's influenced decades of music just as much as it borrowed from the funkiness of the past.

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BONUS TRACK EPISODES

Kyle and Cliff

BONUS TRACK: How We Got Here

We got a bunch of interesting listener feedback in our off-season, and it encouraged us to shed some light on why we do things the way we do ‘em. Also, we reflect on our first writeup, which was ... interesting.

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ABOUT US

We're Kyle (right) and Cliff.

We aren't journalists or musicologists or professors.

We're two dudes from Atlanta who care a lot about music. We've been talking to each other about it for more than 15 years.

This podcast is our way of bringing you into that conversation and taking you deeper into these albums that we love.

More About TuneDig

TuneDig began as a little something called MusicGrid.me, which we created after realizing there was no place online to directly exchange music recommendations with your friends. Our aim was simple: to make rating albums simple, useful, and social. We got some love from places like MashableWiredEvolver.fm, and Hypebot. We managed to foster conversation between music lovers, get thousands of reviews, and meet great people.

Along the way, we realized that record stores were an essential part of the music lovers’ community. After many a conversation about how we could helpfully connect them to the people who loved them, we began helping them leverage technology to create new revenue streams and embrace streaming services without giving up what’s unique to them: expertise and curation. (Long live the counter clerk who knows exactly which record will be the right introduction to jazz fusion!)

TuneDig is our vision to connect music lovers with the music they love, because no matter how much has changed in the way we discover and enjoy music, recommendations from people you trust and respect will always be the best way to find new music you’ll dig. With this podcast, we’re channeling the spirit of trusted curation pioneered by record stores, and bringing you something to take you deeper into music you can love.