After scoring a freak hit with "Sour Times" from their debut album, Dummy, Portishead approached their second album without trying to deliberately repeat its success. The self-titled follow-up is similar to Dummy but there's never a feeling of contrivance or towards perceived commercial concessions. Instead, Portishead begins with the tense and entrancing "Cowboys," a repetitive menace that's highlighted by Beth Gibbons' tortured, squeaking vocals and more of the group's trademark spy film dramatics. (Time ticks with metronomic precision while emergency tones pierce the gray fog.) This emotional wild-play sets Portishead apart. While the temptation might be there to use Gibbons more conventionally, set her up with torch ballads and back it with sophisticated arrangements and trip-hop beats, guitarist Adrian Utley and programmer Geoff Barrow look for ways to stretch the parameters, to turn noises into tunes and pauses into music. The hypnotic sway of "Undenied," the doomsday foreboding of "Mourning Air," and the sparse piano notes of the closer "Western Eyes" prove that they've done just that.

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