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Portugal. The Man - Church Mouth Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008
ImageOver 150 years ago, famed British musicologist Cecil Sharp lamented the spread of the railroad system because increased transportation and mixing of regional populations would wipe out the distinctive flavors of folk music that belonged to each community. Of course, Sharp was absolutely correct, as by the middle of the 20th Century British folk music had become the sole providence of song collectors and ethnomusicologists, and the further spread of radio, home stereos and television wiped out whatever folk music variants remained in industrialized countries. In the United States, only those isolated communities – many of them in Appalachian Mountains and in the rural south – retained their unique musical languages. And while Alaska certainly isn’t free of the forms of media that eradicated the folk tradition, it’s far enough off the beaten path that a group of young musicians could possibly develop outside of the touches of modernity that turn up in the DNA of most contemporary bands. That band is Portugal. The Man.

Though Portugal. The Man is certainly not a folk act in any sense, there’s virtually nothing on Church Mouth to suggest that they haven’t been frozen in suspended animation since 1975. The stylistic mixing pot of their full-length debut -- 2006’s Waiter: “You Vultures!” -- is long gone, with the drum machines and prog rock touches almost completely eradicated in favor of a unified classic rock attack. Reduced to a three-piece by the departure of keyboardist Wes Hubbard, the band (now operating out of Portland) adopts the dynamic of the classic power trios, stepping into the line stretching from Cream through the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin. Sure, they’re not original, but they sound like little else that you’re likely to hear today.
In particular, the Led Zeppelin comparison is apt, as vocalist/guitarist John Gourley does his best to be a one-man Page and Plant, issuing a series of crunching oversized guitar riffs and theatrical vocal affectations. That alone certainly would not be enough to differentiate Portugal. The Man from the pack, as Zeppelin’s legacy has been ripped off more completely and obviously by other bands, but unlike the White Stripes or Wolfmother, they play with more intentional sophistication and stylistic clutter. No doubt, everything they do will be vaguely familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of classic rock radio, but there is nothing that suggests that they’re trying to substitute formula for inspiration. Song by song, Church Mouth simply oozes imagination.

Having entered the studio with the intent of writing the songs while there, the resulting tracks have an energy and spontaneity that belies their complex craftsmanship. From the eerie falsetto yelps and funereal stomp of the shape-shifting opening title track through the subtle addition and subtraction of instruments and effects that hang over the simple minor chord progression of “Shade,” the band rarely stays focused on one texture or tempo (or even volume level) very long. Going from an austere toy piano opening to sweaty blues guitar lines and pungent organ riffs, “Oh Lord” eventually settles down into a ghostly call-and-response dirge complete with mechanical clanking and ominous footsteps before lurching back into a tangle of distorted guitar lines. During such moments, it’s hard to imagine many bands being more clever in assembling a song out of disparate pieces.

Even though they don’t play it straight very often, they clearly have a decent ear for memorable melodies, proven by the soft layers of electric guitars and soaring choruses of the lullaby-ish “My Mind” and the oscillating keyboards and vintage psych-pop of “The Bottom,” a track that sounds like an outtake from the Yardbirds’ classic Roger the Engineer. And while Gourley is so obtuse as a lyricist that it’s nearly impossible to draw anything other than imagery from his writing, there are noticeable traces of Biblical metaphors throughout, with no song more obvious than “Children.” “I’m heading down, down, down/down to the river because I don’t believe in medicine,” Gourley coos over a bedding of backing vocals, blues-inflected guitar licks and soulful slide riffs that evolve into a cloud of thundering guitar distortion. Still, other experiments aren’t nearly as successful.

“Telling Tellers Tell Me” starts out promisingly enough, with double-tracked vocals and snaking psychedelic riffs leading up to an obnoxious funk rock chorus, providing the album’s only moment where Gourley’s vocal theatrics grow tiresome. Even worse is “Dawn,” an uninspired mélange of hand drums, breezy guitars and bubbling bass lines that sounds like a bad Santana cover. An even stranger choice is “Sun Brother,” a track that builds through two minutes of otherwise uneventful riff-rock before fading out mid-song to a muted kick drum heartbeat. For certain, it’s an imaginative idea for a finale, but an album with such an epic sprawl really deserves better.

All in all, there’s no sense in which you can say that Church Mouth was born out of years spent in the backwoods of Alaska, but there’s little denying that Portugal. The Man have set up camp on a fairly secluded section of the art rock spectrum. That they’ve arrived at that point through the portal of classic rock shouldn’t matter so much, as few bands can sound so experimental simply by rearranging the elements in an already obvious equation. The fact that they can make that formula yield new results proves that isolation might be a missing element for all those bands that fail using the same elements.

Sounding like a classic rock album right down to the lo-fi production touches, Church Mouth undercuts some of its potency because of the balanced mix. Though there’s no denying the visceral rush inherent in oversized guitar riffs and gargantuan drum rolls, the album never quite sounds as massive as it could. Drummer Jason Sechrist’s acrobatic and imaginative playing is largely lost in the mix, just as Gourley’s vocals often seem too loud. Even so, it sounds good enough, with the ringing reverb-drenched guitar crosshatching sounding particularly good, and the richly warm textures fitting the retro-fitted feel of material.

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