Portishead is a trip-hop band from Bristol England. They’re made up of Beth Gibbons on vocals and guitar, Geoff Barrow on turntables and drums, and Adrian Utley on guitar. Gibbons and Barrow founded the band in 1991, and they remained a two-piece through the release of their debut record Dummy (1994). Utley, who played on most of the album and toured with them, officially became a member in 1995. That album had three big singles, including the studio version of today’s song. It’s probably their most well-known song, sometimes mistakenly called “Nobody Loves Me”. You’ve probably heard it dozens of times. You haven’t really heard it, though, until you’ve heard this breathtaking version that I’m highlighting today. Breathtaking.
“Sour Times” (Roseland NYC Version) by Portishead
Dummy was a huge success both in the UK and the US. It took them three years to come out with their sophomore album, which was self-titled. It also was promoted by three singles which charted very well. The album itself did better than Dummy did, and it seemed like they were on the verge of something huge.
In 1998, they recorded a live album during a “show” at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom. The band set up in there with the accompaniment of the New York Philharmonic orchestra. I have a friend who was there, and he says that it was much less of a concert, and much more of a recording session in front of an audience. It wasn’t one take and done. They did each song as many times as it took to get a good take. In the end, there was a “live” album and a DVD of the same. Both are absolutely mind-numbingly good. The DVD also includes several official videos, some short films and other stuff. Hours of Portishead goodness.
Today’s song comes from the Roseland NYC Live album, but it wasn’t part of that show. It was actually recorded at a show in San Francisco almost a year after the Roseland NYC show.
There’s a huge difference between this version and the album version, and even if you think you don’t need to hear it, you really do. If you’ve heard it before, it’s probably been a while. You really owe it to yourself to listen. Play it twice, and play it loud. Thank me later.
The instrumentation on the two versions is so different that it takes a while to recognize that they’re the same song. Apart from that, the album version doesn’t have any turntables in it. For the majority of the live song, they’re just kinda there. Around the 4:00 mark, the turntablism starts to pick up some steam. There’s a pretty heavy drum fill at around 4:15, and all hell starts to break loose at 4:18. This is when the song goes from “hey, this is really good” to “HOLY SHITE, this is good!” Beth’s vocals go from sweet to acrid just like that and she goes from singing to growling. It’s not sultry anymore. It’s kind of scary, in a good way. The drums get heavy and busy, and the turntables are just crazy.
What you’re paying for is the bit between 4:15 and 5:00. Those 45 seconds make the entire album. Even though I obviously wasn’t there, I know that those 45 seconds made the entire San Francisco show.
About four months ago, when I was doing a lot of driving for a job that I used to have, I was listening to this one day. It was the first time I’d listened to Roseland NYC Live in a couple of years. I was enjoying it enough until I got to that bit that I’m talking about. I literally had the breath knocked out of me, and gooseflesh on top of gooseflesh. I had to stop the van, pull over, and listen to it again. And again. Right there on the side of the road. Through a cruddy Ford Transit factory-installed stereo. I couldn’t wait to get back home to play it through real speakers.
A lot of times, “live album” versions of songs are only slightly different and/or marginally better than their studio counterparts. I’d put this, along with Elvis Costello’s “Lipstick Vogue”, in a very special group in which the “live album” versions are exponentially better. They make you forget the album version altogether. At the very least, they make you never want to listen to the album version ever again.
Incidentally, the version of “Sour Times” that they actually recorded at Roseland is in that other group. It’s good, but it’s nothing special. That version is on the DVD, in case you need to hear it for comparison.
After a long hiatus, Portishead released a third proper album called, appropriately, Third in 2008. I don’t have it, and I only gave it a half-hearted listen when it came out. It got extremely favorable reviews, and charted very well. It peaked at #2 on the UK Albums chart and it debuted at #7 on the Billboard 200 in the US.
There is some speculation that Portishead is working on a fourth album for possible release this calendar year. They played a small tour last year and curated one of the All Tomorrow’s Parties shows, so they’re definitely working together. We just don’t know when to expect anything new.