Album: Dummy – Portishead
Review: NME, 13 August 1994
Author: Stephen Dalton

Poor Portishead. The town, I mean, not the slo-mo sound sculptors who have made this innocuous seaside hideaway sound so relentlessly tragic. For this is, without question, a sublime debut album. But so very, very sad.

‘Dummy’ unspools with melancholic majesty. From one angle, its languid slowbeat blues clearly occupy similar terrain to soulmates Massive Attack and all of Bristol hip-hop’s extended family. But from another these are avant-garde ambient moonscapes of a ferociously experimental nature. In other words, seriously spooky shit. But terrific shit all the same. Geoff Barrow‘s hugely evocative compositions earn constant comparisons with soundtrack gods Ennio Morricone and John Barry, although this is no smartarse spot-the-reference sample show. Most of these dislocating noises are played directly onto vinyl and then scratched back into the mix, creating deep and textured ambience instead of second-hand special effects.

Besides, it is Beth Gibbons‘ soulful sobs which really put Portishead on the emotional map. She can be Bjork or Billie Holliday, but the numb heartbreak is her recurring theme, culminating in the almost unbearable refrain “nobody loves me” from funereal current single ‘Sour Times’. Both Barrow and Gibbons are products of lonely, loveless childhoods, so titles like ‘Mysterons’ and ‘Wandering Star’ as much products of other-wordly isolation knowing trash-culture obsessions – the shadowy underside of human behaviour distilled into weeping strings, spectral there vibrations and haunting silences.

Portishead’s post-ambient, timelessly organ blues are probably too left-field introspective and downright Bristolian to grab short-term glory as some kind of Next Big Thing. But remember what radical departures ‘Blue Lines’ ‘Ambient Works’ and ‘Debut’ were for the times and make sure you hear this unmissable album. This may not be the future, but it is a future – one where Portishead is a desolate exquisitely beautiful place to visit.

JC adds…….

It’s the fact that Portishead were complete unknowns at the time of the debut release, and also that nobody was fully prepared to tip them for huge success, which leads to what was a very short review in the NME.  It was the same in the other UK weeklies and monthlies, although almost all of the reviews were incredibly positive – it was only as the commercial success began to catch-up with the critical acclaim did Portishead begin to enjoy extensive media coverage, and indeed the album and Beth Gibbons was everywhere come the end of the calendar year and the look back at ‘the best of 94’.

So much of the music from that year and indeed era hasn’t dated all that well, but Dummy is a huge exception.  It remains a wonderful and essential listen, of appeal to fans whose main preferences span many genres, with a production and delivery that still sounds fresh more than 25 years on.  My only gripe is that having delivered something as near perfect as this, it was going to be a huge task to match it with subsequent albums, and Portishead never really kept my interest in later years, not helped much by the fact that having snagged a sought-after ticket for Portishead’s debut Scottish gig in May 1995, the event proved to be very underwhelming and disappointing, thanks in the main to a complete lack of audience interaction from the stage….we’d have been as well sitting at home and playing the album on a big stereo.

mp3: Portishead – Sour Times
mp3: Portishead – Wandering Star
mp3: Portishead – Roads
mp3: Portishead – Glory Box




Last September, I put up a posting fawning about the single Glory Box by Portishead. The posting had been inspired by the fact that the single had come up on i-pod shuffle for the first time in years and given me a big ‘wow’ moment.

I stumbled across a post at the old blog from March 2013 which was looking back at the LP Dummy……………………..

…………………There’s something really special about Dummy, the 1994 debut LP by Portishead that they never, in my humble opinion, ever came close to capturing again. Which means that outwith the debut LP, there’s nothing more than a couple of later singles on the shelves.

I can pinpoint when I began to fall out of love with Portishead – it was May 1995 when I went to see them live in Edinburgh. It was a really hot ticket. The band were probably the most talked about new act in the UK at the time and every review said they were a sensational live experience. Maybe I caught them on a bad night. But the gig was one of the most boring I’d ever been to and I came away very disappointed. Dummy, having been a record I couldn’t stop listening to, became associated with a major let down. But I’ve picked it up again in recent weeks and found myself really appreciating it.

It’s no surprise really that it has sold more than 800,000 copies in the UK alone. Critics fawned over it and it was one of the first records that I can recall the UK mainstream newspapers and magazines going completely ga-ga for. This was atypical:-

“Dummy mixes cocktail keyboards, spaghetti-western guitars, eerie tape loops, and dub-wise rhythms into what could be called `acid cabaret’….as musically compelling as it is emotionally chilling.”

OK…I’ll take a wee risk here with my next sentence…..

One of the reasons Dummy was a huge hit was because it was hip-hop,dub and soul for the white middle-classes.

There was no swearing, there were no loud unexpected passages of music, there was no political message being preached and it meandered along at a pace that was perfect background music while the chattering classes had their dinner parties. Going by that sort of description Dummy should be an LP that is bland, conservative, shallow and lacking passion. But one listen and you’ll see that it’s anything but.

Much of this is down to Beth Gibbons. It’s a very laid back and relaxed vocal all the way through the album.Very rarely does she strain for notes the way that many female vocalists think is the only way to demonstrate that they have soul……there are times it sounds as if she has just picked up the lyric sheet and is not yet able to familiarise herself with the words. But her performance is absolutely flawless. And a perfect fit to the music.

mp3 : Portishead – Mysterons
mp3 : Portishead – Roads
mp3 : Portishead – It Could Be Sweet




First of all…..when you haven’t heard such a great song in gawd knows home many years as it hasn’t come up on random shuffle on the i-pod and you think to yourself….wow!

mp3 : Portishead – Glory Box (single edit)

Secondly…..there is no way that 20 years have flown by since this was in the UK charts. Nooo Waaay.

Sour Times in August 1994 had brought Portishead to the attention of the record-buying public but parent album Dummy had been a bit of a slow-burner albeit it was high in all the critics end-of-year appraisals. The decision to edit down the closing track of the album for release as a 45 at the start of the following year was a stroke of genius and Dummy was soon selling in much bigger quantities and in the Top 20. I really thought Glory Box had been a Top 5 hit but looking back with the use of t’internet reveals it stuck at #13, the same spot as Sour Times some five months previous.

The three other tracks on the CD single are a variation on a theme and well worth a listen:-

mp3 : Portishead – Toy Box
mp3 : Portishead – Scorn
mp3 : Portishead – Sheared Box

Oh and for completeness, here’s the full 5 minute plus version that closes out the LP:-

mp3 : Portishead – Glory Box

The main sample in the song is an Isaac Hayes track called Ike’s Rap II. Later the same year, the sample again hit the UK charts, this time at #12:-


mp3 : Tricky – Hell Is Round The Corner (original mix)
mp3 : Tricky – Hell Is Round The Corner (the Hell’n’Water mix)