Portishead’s PNYC: Trip-hop pioneers go orchestral with fairly strong live album

Portishead’s PNYC, a live album culled from the esteemed trip-hoppers’ recent stop in the Big Apple, is on some level a conceptual masterstroke. Granted, it’s a pretty simple concept – playing electronic-sounding stuff with a 30-piece orchestra! – but it makes so much sense it’s almost profound. After all, if any band can bridge the schism between electronica (intimidating because there are too many damn machines, beats) and classical music (intimidating because there are not enough damn beats), it’s Portishead, who understand both media as means to express deeply human ends.

Problem is, on PNYC, Portishead hedges its bets, delivering an always competent, often enveloping performance that nevertheless doesn’t have much new insight into the Portishead canon, let alone the elusive electro-classical connection. Sure, it’s great to hear the neo-noir opening tagline of “Humming” accompanied by an authoritative string section. And the same goes for the ominous buildup of “Half Day Closing.” But, ultimately, both the band and the orchestra are perhaps a little too willing to play by each other’s rules: the orchestra faithfully reconstructs Portishead’s atmospheric tableaus, and Portishead responds by locking itself into the orchestral arrangements and, more often than not, throwing away the key.

Which leaves PNYC with (no shame here) eleven excellent songs played solidly with glimpses of greatness. Beth Gibbons is, as always, in good voice; she’s so experienced at waxing rhapsodic she could makethe Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” seem eerily pained. Sound architect Geoff Barrow does a thoroughly impressive job of recreating the majesty of two of the most meticulously arranged studio albums of the decade. Adrian Utley delivers some of the album’s best moments, working his guitar into the mix with barbed subtlety.

And, of course, there are the 30 odd classically trained musicians advertised on the album cover. They do their job and, every so often, then some. The strings add significant depth and heft to “Only You” and the already dense chorus of “Half Day Closing;” the cello-viola interplay of “Over” is a slow-burn to behold. In general, the orchestra fits much more comfortably into the more stratified, dynamically varied songs from last year’s Portishead. Of the still more beloved Dummy tracks, only “Mysterons” stands out, and it does so essentially because the band decides to give it the ol’ Portishead treatment, inverting the original composition’s wide-open spaces into claustrophobic orchestral rave-ups.

“Mysterons” puts the orchestra to its best possible use; by playing louder and looser, the ensemble created intensity by flirting with rock form. Other touches on PNYC dabble in the same territory with similar success: a strong reading of “All Mine” accentuates the song’s funk underpinnings; Barrow’s turntable scratching and the orchestral backing in “Over” compete like a pair of dueling guitar solos. This is compelling stuff because it reads spontaneity and esprit into a music known more for ambience than elan.

Still, we don’t want the band venturing too far into the world of the rock concert. The audience’s handclaps on the otherwise pristine “Roads” are trés arena rock, and more than a little overbaked. And “Sour Times,” the only song that differs here from its album version in structure, is remade in rather awkward fashion. Though the song closes with a propulsive guitar assault reminiscent of a previous remix, the turgid buildup that precedes the exciting finale is noble but misguided.

But what’s a live album without its misguided indulgences? A waste of money, that’s what. (Besides, what else are you going to buy these days? The new 311 live disc?) Even if they stumble on the way, Portishead is to be commended for taking what appears to be a reach to careerism. If the band can make it on PNYC, it can make it anywhere. And it probably will.

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