[Originally published 1995 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
Don't get me wrong. It's not that I think Portishead stinks or anything. The dolorous British duo are not incompetent musicians by any means. They can, in fact, carry a tune, even if they do so with the gloom and resignation of a phalanx of slaves schlepping kegs of vinegar yoked to their shoulders. There's even something approaching a melancholy splendor to Beth Gibbons' voice. The fact that Gibbons manages to unite that dysphasia with a hummable pop refrain in "Sour Times," the hit single that's taking over the whole fucking world at the moment, is at least a modest achievement.
Still, that achievement does not warrant the extraordinary adulation Portishead has received – not when Basehead labours in obscurity.
Even the names are similar, and I can hardly imagine how Portishead could have created Dummy, its big début album, without stirring some of Basehead's ether into its cauldron. Basehead is actually just one person, Michael Ivey, a guy from D.C. with the most enticing minimalist anti-rap rap on the planet. Slow-cadence, softly-articulated rap may have put the (Digable) Planets on the map, but they're hyped on caffeine and jacked into 10,000 volts compared to Ivey, who does the closest thing to verbal shuffling of which human beings are capable.
Why isn't Basehead a household name among "alternative" kids the way Mudhoney and Rage Against the Machine are? It's not for lack of trying: Though Ivey's first record, the redoubtable Play with Toys, was originally released through kooky Sacramento typefoundry/magazine publisher/record label Emigre, it was later picked up by Imago Records, an appendage of the giant BMG empire. A second album, Not in Kansas Anymore, came out the same year (1992) and, like Laurie Anderson in recent years, demonstrated that Ivey may well have said all he can say on his first record. Somehow Henry Rollins managed to build a mass-market Details-reading alterna-kid empire via Imago (even starring in PowerBook ads – ooh!), but Michael Ivey? Sank without a trace, and more's the pity.
Play with Toys opens with Ivey finishing the last bars of a song in a nightclub before a vicious crowd and travels from there – not up, not down, just across. Ivey's mutterings are mirrored almost too directly by his background tracks. But that is key to his gestalt: Deep voice and deep music conspire to lull you out of whatever state you were in and put you in a sort of trance. It's a far more effective and reliable mood-leveler than any of this crapola ambient "chill-out" music we're all supposed to groove to.
By contrast, Portishead is mannered and overblown, with complex accompaniments (Gibbons sings along with up to five musicians and occasional samples) that stand as counterpoint to her delicate voice. Portishead is to Basehead what Point of No Return is to La Femme Nikita: An over-energetic, self-aware remake. Opt for the original. Ivey could use the royalties, I'm sure.
A truly exciting and original sound is coming from the lads of Glueleg, a Toronto quintet who had the inspired idea to add horns to heavy metal. Yes, indeedy, horns. You get the meatiest basslines a vegan could ask for along with alto and tenor saxophone and some trumpets here and there. It's as arresting as a slap across the face with Bugs Bunny's brick-containing white glove – and at least ten times as fun!
Maybe I exaggerated when I said the sound is original; it is reminiscent of Fear's classic I-hate-New York number "New York's All Right if You Like Saxophones"and the Ordinaires' light-hearted instrumental remake of LedZep's "Kashmir." And the Mighty Mighty Bosstones offer a similar sound. But I did not exaggerate when I said it's exciting - enough so, in fact, to make you ignore the rank idiocy of the lyrics on Heroic Doses, the band's first album. Now, I'm a stickler for many things, but lyrical intelligibility isn't one of them – I've heard Basehead's Play with Toys 25 times and can barely cite one line of lyrics – but I cringe at the robotic Japlish-like mishmash of phrases in lead single "Heroic Doses" and the album's distasteful ode to flatulence (locate it yourself – if I had to suffer through it, you do too).
If the music doesn't hold your attention, the multilayered cinematography of the "Heroic Doses" video will, even though it is oddly reminiscent of Soundgarden's "Jesus Christ Pose" and the Violent Femmes' "Machine." If all else fails, drummer Christian Simpson has a lovely name and a nicer bod, which he's not shy about showing off. Shower him with kisses if you get to see them live.