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POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

* * * * PORTISHEAD, "Portishead," Go! Beat/London

September 21, 1997|Steve Hochman

"Dummy," this English band's 1994 debut album, was a landmark ear-opener. Beth Gibbon's often astounding vocals--full of heart-rending longing and pain--intertwined with programmer Geoff Barrow's smoky sonic concoctions and guitarist Adrian Utley's spy-movie twang to set the standard for such ice-cool cousins as Sneaker Pimps and Lamb.

No dummies themselves, the team has no interest in being stuck in a genre and has raised the bar with this follow-up to a level that's going to be hard to match. Gibbons takes her place alongside Sinead O'Connor and Bjork as one of pop's premiere female singers, as well as providing herself gripping lyrics detailing desire's transformation into obsession and mania. On the opening "Cowboys" she's a razor-tongued Billie Holiday; on "Undenied" she's Shirley Bassey via Anais Nin. Even when her vocal affectations border on grating, her air of despair and desperation is all too real.

Meanwhile, Barrow, Utley and engineer Dave McDonald craft compelling tracks conveying the depth of emotions as much as the vocals and words. Too colorful to be written off as noir, sounds both created and sampled (with such touches as Barrow's hip-hop scratching and distinctive strings and horns) portray a tortured mental landscape in vivid dimension.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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