Barrow still makes quacking noises with his turntables, Beth Gibbons still sings in a startlingly mannered way, though the manners are so surprising - Shirley Bassey? Eartha Kitt? - that they sound quite unforced. The drum sound has been beefed up into a more dub-happy echo-layered thump, and the brilliant guitarist Adrian Utley is now acknowledged as a full member of the band. Best of all, the songs more than stand up to comparison with their predecessors, and Gibbon's lyrics are even more alluring. The closing number, "Western Eyes", is a killer, with an eerie sample conjuring up the ghost of Johnny Ray on Dummy with perfect symmetry.
Elsewhere, on the opening "Cowboys", for example, the mood is more rock- friendly, in keeping with the movement of the times, wherein "dance-music" acts like Prodigy and Massive Attack are busily transforming themselves into potential stadium-stormers now that audiences are less responsive to the notion of a couple of DJs and a boffin at a computer as live entertainment. Portishead's great advantage here is that they really are a proper group - as their appearance on BBC2's Later showed. Admirers of the dark, gothy charms of Nick Cave or PJ Harvey will feel even more at home with Portishead. And for the rest of us, there's still a satisfyingly jazzy, funky and slack film-noir soundtrack to hold our fondue-parties to. Phil Johnson