July 31, 2011 1 comment
Have you ever found yourself trying your hardest to enjoy something? As if, through some act of cognitive osmosis, you’re just supposed to “get it”. It’s like when I try to watch Reservoir Dogs and a I don’t leap to its praises in one fell swoop. All my friends say things like “Dude, just keep watching. You’re not letting it hit you” or “C’mon, it’s Tarantino. You liked Pulp Fiction, right? Well, this should be right up your alley!” But, time after time, I’m left ruefully underwhelmed. So, I guess that brings me to Portugal. The Man’s seventh studio album In the Mountain in the Cloud.
In defense of the analogy, I’m not making a blanket comparison between Reservoir Dogs and this particular album, just the taxing activity of forcing yourself to like what many others already do, and have subsequently justified. In just five short years, Portugal. The Man have released seven psych/prog/glam rock records among a litany of EP’s and a live recording. Their catalog is somewhat exclusive on the level of accessibility, and the depth intimidated me a bit. But, when you dig into albums like last years American Ghetto, or 2009’s The Satanic Satanist (and it’s acoustic compatriot The Majestic Majesty), the thread of material points out a clear essence to their sound: Pop.
Opening up the album is a “No Surprises” reminiscent riff plucked, ever so sheepishly, by what seems like a very distant acoustic guitar on “So American”. For all the comparison’s to T-Rex that these guys get — and while their sound is most certainly barking up that Electric Warrior tree — there’s a steadfast commitment pushing their sound toward some type of controlled absurdity. So, while the progression and guitar leads on this track seem predictable, the pseudo-religious and oddly detailed lyrics keep you off balance for an entire three and a half minutes.
And, I’ll give it to these guys, that’s a great way to intro an album. Now, how do they keep the momentum going? With “Floating (Time Isn’t Working My Side)”. I’d rather not say I was bored, but I got this eerie feeling that, from the looks of things, I’d be hearing a multitude of the same motif’s, filtered through what I can only determine as simply different song titles. The Pop elements are still here, but they’re stale and dry. And, for this analysis to jump in my head by track two either means I’m a closet obsessive compulsive, or that this album somewhat exhausted all of its resources on a marginally impressive first track.
“Senseless” does more to disprove my theory though, with fuzzy bass playing the antitheses to bright keyboard strokes; the whole thing sounds awfully Shins to me. That’s a good thing. What isn’t is when that formula is replicated on “All Your Light (Times Like These)” to a less intriguing extent. “You Carried Us (Share With Me The Sun)” works on a different level, as it too is a familiar ballad, but instead of quirky or introverted, it goes for epic. The strings, pounding drums, backing vocals; all things that a glam rock band does well, and Portugal finds their comfort zone on far too little occasions to get into a groove like this.
What bugged me the most about this album wasn’t that it was less than what my expectations were. I honestly had no expectations coming into this record to begin with. We’ve seen this group go from drum machines and synths (Waiter: “You Vultures!”) to blues (Church Mouth) to all out psychobilly freakout (It’s Complicated Being a Wizard), so this album’s lack of color, so to speak, wasn’t exactly pleasant, but it definitely wasn’t a surprise. What bothered me was the thought that this bad was holding back to make their music more performance ready.
It’s no secret that inking a major label deal with Atlantic Records immediately means (if only slightly) more exposure. And, with recent appearances at various festivals and larger venues (including a lengthy European quest), I don’t doubt the fact that this group saw its previous work as a bit too insular and nuanced to translate to stage in a more grand spectrum. I know I may be reaching a bit here, but the sound of In The Mountain seems so much more form fit to large audiences that it only seems logical to head in the direction of that conclusion. Is that a bad thing? Or course not. But, some of the creativity has been hampered here in the pursuit of live accessibility.
Fortunately, the end of this album is stronger and more concise than anything I’ve heard from this band in a long time. Well, since the highlights of their previous effort, really. “Share With Me The Sun” has a slick riff that I could actually see fitting well into one of those bar scenes in, coincidentally, another Tarantino flick, Death Proof — Particularly one featuring Rose McGowan… And a certain lapdance. That, coupled with the gorgeously climactic, and surprisingly emotional, closer ” Sleep Forever”, this album proves to boast one of the weakest mid-sections this year, if only by the sheer strength of its bookends.
No, I didn’t finally “get it” like all my friends had told me I would, but the parts that were good, were REALLY good. And, the parts that weren’t, well… At least Steve Buscemi was consistent.