After Further Review

Putting the season's major releases to the test.

(Go! Beat/London)

Portishead's first album, Dummy, and its lead single, "Sour Times," left me feeling a bit underwhelmed: I decided that they were forced and affected, and I left it at that. But in retrospect, I think that their ultra-stylized sounds baffled me. Now, on Portishead, I get it. The doomy programming favored by Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley and Beth Gibbons--thudding beats and synthesized fanfares sprinkled sparingly over a landscape that's otherwise almost barren--may be theatrical, but its restraint prevents the atmosphere from growing banal. Likewise, Gibbons's vocals are terrifying in their blankness; she sounds as if she's gone beyond fear and pain into a unknown realm that's simultaneously desolate and clinical. Her relentlessly dour worldview can be suffocating: After hearing Gibbons battling more demons than there are in both houses of Congress during "Over," many people will want to peruse the obituaries to make sure she didn't climb into a steaming tub and slash her wrists. But any band that can render the James Bondy "All Mine," the harrowing "Seven Months" and the otherworldly "Elysium" on the same disc is one that demands attention. Easy listening it's not, but Portishead's ability to create an alternative universe as logical and vast as the one in which you live is a striking achievement--a vital repudiation of the Prozac nation.

Spice Girls

As the Girls prepare to go down for the last time (in a career sense), consider this CD for what it is--not an album, really, but an intriguing artifact from the tail end of the second millennium after Christ. On it, despite the social progress that has supposedly marked the American century, the archetypes that have haunted Western civilization for decades remain firmly in place. For example, a woman of African descent is allowed to be part of the Spice Girl sorority, but she's made to conform to hoary jungle cliches (she's Scary Spice). Her four Caucasian sisters are mired in stereotypes of their own: The blond member is infantilized (she's Baby Spice), the redhead is sexualized (she's Sexy Spice), and the two brunettes are relegated to secondary roles (they're Posh Spice and Sporty Spice). These male-fantasy characters were created, appropriately enough, by a male, Simon Fuller--and because the Girls sacked him on the eve of the Spiceworld movie, its impending failure will further reinforce the outmoded belief that women can't really do it for themselves. Spiceworld's lyrics, meanwhile, pretend to be about empowerment (for substantiation, turn an ear toward the lines "Keep your head up high/Don't you know you are the superfly/And that ain't no lie," from "Saturday Night Divas"). But these bold statements are undercut by meager harmonies and the fact that all the tunes are largely written by dudes. (The Girls get co-writing recognition, but Elvis did, too, and you and I both know how many tunes he really composed.) And the music? It's like a cross between second-rate Bananarama and the musical interludes on The New Mickey Mouse Club. But that doesn't mean that Spiceworld is worthless, because it's not. I won't be listening to my copy anytime soon, but I plan to keep it in a very safe place. And fifty years from now, when I want to remember what it was like way back in 1997, I'll be very happy I did.

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