Here’s a clip of Portishead frontwoman Beth Gibbons in her collaboration with former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (billed here as ‘Rustin Man’) performing a key track ‘Tom the Model’ from their one-off album together Out of Season from 2002.
Beth Gibbons and Paul Webb were friends before the former joined and began recording with Portishead. And in keeping in touch, it made sense for the two to collaborate, especially since Portishead aren’t known for a whirlwind schedule of recordings and tours. Besides that, it makes sense for the two of them to make a record together, since brittle, atmospheric music is an area of expertise they both share. And for Gibbons, it was a chance to explore the world of songwriting, as well as expanding on what she is able to accomplish as a vocalist.
Her voice has the description ‘evocative’ permanently attached to it, and here it does what you expect it to do. And similar to her work with Portishead, the evocation of the soundtracks of 60s cinema, with requisite John Barry and Lalo Schifrin influence, is well in place. But a good deal of the album shows that this is only one texture that she has at her disposal. Even though a lot of what she’s doing with her voice adds a lot of dark and spooky atmosphere to the material, on a couple of occasions it sounds downright innocent, as if she’s accessed a tonally emotive area that is more Sandy Denny than Eartha Kitt (see the opening track ‘Mysteries’), even if Kitt remains to be a vocal reference point (see the track “Romance” to see what I mean).
In Portishead, Gibbons’ voice is like a living sampler, able to reproduce the feel of a time gone by. But, here on this record and on this song, her voice is warmer, a bit less distant on most tracks, and is very much the instrument of a performer and songwriter who is very much in the present, even if the material has a certain retro feel. In many ways, it should be world’s apart from Portishead in many more respects. For instance, this is almost an exclusively acoustic record, as opposed to Portishead’s world of samples and technology. Yet, the effect here is similar. Maybe the moods, the melodies, the lyrical themes, are the things which make Gibbons’ work distinctive rather than the tools she and her collaborators have used to get the sound.
For me, this is a great track off of a very intense album, an album I can’t just put on casually. I think it’s possible for music to be beautiful and burdensome at the same time, and this record is a great example. There is something very heavy about it. It’s as if the pair had poured some of their suffering into it, as well as their enthusiasm. There are a lot of contrived albums based around this approach, with a lot of overemoting, and faux-angst sentiment. But, the songs and the overall feel on this record are so subtle, and there are so many little sonic details which demand a listener’s attention, that it’s sometimes pretty exhausting, just because it feels so real. Yet when you’re in it, it’s pretty awe inspiring too.
The skill that Gibbons’ seems to have is the ability to turn her voice into an instrument which goes beyond conveying lyrics and melody at face value. She somehow makes her performance into something more like a special effect in a movie. She creates an illusion, a real sense of location somehow, in a way that I’ve never experienced in the work of another singer. And the aural landscape she creates isn’t always safe, either. Sometimes, it’s downright threatening, but not in a crass or overt way. It’s the subtlety she’s able to employ that makes this track, and the other songs on the album, totally compelling and real – which is why it sometimes gives way to some beautifully chilling music. Perhaps tellingly, there hasn’t been a follow-up to this album.
For more music from Out of Season and other albums, check out the Beth Gibbons MySpace page.