Week 9: “Roads” by Portishead

Music critics love coming up with names for new genres of music. Sometimes the name reflects the way the music sounds (eg. “grunge”, “industrial”), sometimes it reflects the way bands within the genre dress (eg. “glam”). The easiest way to come up with a name for a genre of music is just to add the prefix “post-” to a genre that already exists, thereby making any band associated with that genre sound new and exciting, even if it’s really just a slight variation on something we’ve already heard a million times. Post-punk. Post-pop. Wouldn’t you love it if the marketers for your local Symphony Orchestra started pushing its product as “post-Classical”?

Anyway, the ideal genre name is both descriptive AND clever. This brings us to the term “trip-hop”. Get it? In the mid-1990s, if a band was down-tempo, used samples and/or hallucinogens, and especially if they were based in the U.K., they were classified as trip-hop. And the masters of this cleverly-named genre were Portishead. But you don’t have to be on any kind of drug to appreciate their chillout classic, “Roads”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. (Duh) The Rhodes piano. Probably why they named the song the way they did. After all, this is a band that named itself after the place it’s from…I guess that in the mid-90s, obvious was cool. Anyway, it’s a simple descending set of chords that make you want to descend your backside into a comfy couch and nod your head approvingly.

2. The voice. Singer Beth Gibbons mastered the fragile, plaintive style that was emulated by other trip-hop acts of the time. (See also: Sneaker Pimps)

3. The string swell near the end. At about the 3.20-mark, the strings, which had been there for a while, but which you might not have noticed, suddenly take off. The bassline comes along for the ride, with a great “doo..ba-doot-dooo…da-ba-doo” line, anchoring the song’s climax.

Recommended listening activity:

Stocking up on munchies.

Buy it here.