In striking contrast to her brother, Jackson is a major pop artist who isn't particularly interested in the privileges of her position. Instead, by matching the honesty in her lyrics with an easygoing accessibility, she seems simply to be letting us know what's on her mind. Rather than wrestling with pop artifice, Jackson has made a career of eliminating it.

-- Martin Johnson

(Go! Beat/London/Polygram)

The only thing rarer than a band like Portishead is an album like Portishead, the follow-up to the band's wildly successful debut, Dummy. What makes the group unique is how it constructs its musical palette: To an eccentric but not entirely original collection of premium breakbeats, electronic colorings, compulsively moody bass lines, and mod- and Mancini-inspired melodies they add the extravagant, haunting melancholia of singer Beth Gibbons. And what separates the recording from other contemporary trip-hop offerings (besides the fact that most pop bands self-title their debuts, not their sophomore efforts) is its simultaneous expansiveness and narrow-mindedness.

Portishead stays close to its trip-hop roots, and by association close to trip hop's hip-hop roots, devising the kinds of sonic schemes that progressives like Wyclef Jean (from the Fugees), DJ Shadow, Prince Paul (former De La Soul producer), and DJ Muggs (from Cypress Hill) will find inspiring, and maybe even a little threatening. With tunes like "Seven Months" and "Elysium," Portishead also seem to have tapped into a creative vein very similar to the shape-shifting sound of Wu-Tang Clan's Rza. Unlike the phony rappers who steal Rza's style in lieu of real creativity, Portishead's Geoff Barrow (drums, sampling, etc.), Beth Gibbons (the voice), and Adrian Utley (guitar, bass, and other instruments) make music that experiments with the same musical tropes.

"Elysium," for instance, is much less a deliberate musing on the possible direction of a progressive, hard-core hip-hop producer and much more Gibbons' very own private vocal conundrum. In one of the tune's darker moments, she whines in tuneful distress, "It's written in your eyes/ And how I despise myself/ But you can't deny how I feel/ And you can't decide for me." But no matter how engaging her lyrics, how morbidly playful, they are forgettable. It's all in how the vocal delivery crashes into the packaging: From scratchy and filtered like a cigarette ("Cowboys") to waiflike and fragile ("Undenied") to she's-having-a-bad-trip ("Half Day Closing") to unplugged ("Humming").

The net effect is, well, that you get to listen to the net effect. All by her lonesome, Gibbons could invoke the melodic intensity of the score to Hitchcock's Vertigo. But trip hop is about something different, about finding a different place and staying there. That space is a cross between emotional deluge and psychedelic otherness; Portishead works because the collective is able to descend into the depths of bittersweet sadness and frustration and despondency and blues and not only stay there, but make it danceable, endurable, and unforgettable.

-- Victor Haseman

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