Not much can be said about concert albums, other than the fact that they're almost completely unnecessary.
There's just something very ironic about listening to a recording of "live" music.
So is Portishead's new Roseland NYC Live album just another way for the record company to make a quick buck? Sure. That doesn't mean it's not any good.
I bought tickets for their Palladium show not sure what to expect. After all, the band's distinctive trip-hop-film-noir-whatever sound doesn't exactly lend itself a concert, and there's a far cry between brooding in your own room and brooding in a theater with others. Somehow I drove down to L.A. that night, hopped up on caffeine and nicotine after pulling an all nighter for finals, and when the band finally came on-stage–
Well, I don't want to say "you had be there," but… There's just something about the overwhelming intensity of the group that connects in any environment.
In part, this probably has more to do with strong songwriting than the performance itself–though the band in equally impressive in that category as well.
The strongest thing about this album, strangely enough, is its intimacy. All the instruments are surprisingly sharp and clear, from the rich sounds of the orchestra on-stage with the band right down to the unnerving rattle of a snare drum.
There's little here that seems canned or pre-recorded in a genre that seems to rely heavily on studio work; even the samples are brought to life in furious bouts of record scratching.
Of course, this is still a live album, and it doesn't quite escape all the shortcomings of one. No matter how the well the album lends itself to a vicarious experience, it's still a poor substitute for actually attending a concert. And no matter how good the performance of the song itself is, there's always the annoying presence of the audience.
This audience in particular has the annoying tendency to applaud before songs are completely over, and, in a completely bizarre move, even claps along every now and then at twice the song's tempo. Most importantly, there's absolutely no new material here (The songs are taken equally from 1994’s “Dummy” and last years eponymous release).
Still, there are extremely compelling renditions, including a more relaxed version of "All Mine" and a grandiose coda added to "Strangers."
Best of all is the ubiquitous "Sour Times," all but completely destroyed with a halting beat and purposely off-key guitar (bearing slight resemblance to the "Airbus Reconstruction" version, but better). Towards the end when Gibbons nearly screams "nobody loves me" without the requisite disclaimer "…not like you do," it's no longer just a simple declaration but a confession–one that's become much more bitter over the past four years.
None of this would matter without singer Beth Gibbons' voice, which not only holds up live, but somehow manages to sound even more terminally melancholic than before. And as you're hit with the truth of that confession, there's else nothing to do but brood over it for the rest of those long winter nights…