Review Summary: Portugal the Man tries to bring the rocknroll to indie and fails.
Touring with The Fall of Troy
, and especially Tera Melos
sets the bar pretty god dam
n high. However, Portugal the Man seems to roll with the best of them (check http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYViIrLNNg4 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvoWMggcts0). But hey, it's 2007. We get that they have jammed with some legit bands. We get that the Gatsby's American Dream singer digs them enough to do guest spots. We get that they're from Alaska. Portugal the Man is a band that got by a lot of hype and cred on their first album Waiter: "You Vultures!,"
and need to produce a sophomore anti-slump to get listeners to respect their whimsical brand of dancy rock. It does help that they at least have a less curiously titled album in Church Mouth
(as weird as that still is).
However, what have they brought to the table beyond that? It seems like Portugal the Man have once again brought a pastiche of rocknroll, indie, psychedelic, and post-punk that in theory is not too many steps removed from the style they were working with on Waiter: "You Vultures!"
. This time around though there is a distinct emphasis on the rock part of that blend and a subversion of their post-punk roots. Where at moments on their previous album they could sound like The Mars Volta
covering The Beatles
, this time around it's more like Aerosmith
covering For the Mathematics
. Aesthetically, Church Mouth
is like forcing an N64 game into a Gamecube, even though everybody knows a Gamecube isn't backwards compatible. This weird reversion to an older, retro rock style does not suit Portugal the Man well on this album at all. They seem to be desperately striving to achieve the analog authenticity and energy of rock music but are doing it through a self-consious, ironic, digital filter. It pays off on their most energetic tracks like "Church Mouth" that benefit from the pentatonic riffing in the bass, but a lot of other tracks just seem to get weighed down by the somewhat antiquated style. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with embracing a rock influence (even Every Time I Die pulled it off with their album Hot Damn
), but Portugal the Man seems to be throwing it in to the mix for the sake of quirkiness or generating a jangling sound rather than because they actually striving to rock your face off.
And all of these complaints criticize the surface of the music and not the core of it all. Looking at the inner-workings of Church Mouth
though produces equally unappealing observations. To start, the songwriting is massively boring. Nearly every song is hindered by its verse-chorus-verse structure. And, at that, they nearly always put in a quiet, clean-tone bridge to chop up the energy of the verses and choruses, leaving a formula that is not unlike the song structure woes found on Taking Back Sunday's Tell All Your Friends
. All of the songs are the same song in terms of arc and structure, making the whole album feel homogeneous. In terms of the instruments and technicality, for a band that has been repped for having prog influences or leanings, the playing is decidedly unchallenging and uninteresting. The bass playing is fantastically tasteful at times, but other than that and a few mathy interludes, I don't hear anything scintillating. It's just a whole bunch of pentatonic rock riffs. Don't let the throwback/soul/ironic/indie/reverby/imitation-Cedric-Bixler vocals throw you off. This is all pretty mundane. Also, the production is pretty woeful. I have no problem with the slow sections that feature clean-tone guitar, which considering that all of the bridges are these kinds of slow sections, and every song has the same structure, is once per song. However, the guitar tones and mixing on the other parts are frustrating. In tune with trying to invoke a rock sound, there's a lot of fuzz in the guitar tone. This drowns out the chord voicings a lot, especially on the most energetic tracks. Also, the reverb and distortion given to the vocals to lend them body is really obvious and tasteless. Really the only thing done well in the way of production is the bass tone, which uses distortion in a great way; there's not too much, but there's enough to add extra intensity to the grinding rhythms. It's as if the pros of production coincide with the pros in the musicianship. Weird. Also, another brief positive is to mention that the organ synthesizer thrown in to mix really complements the vocals when they are imitating soul.
So, from an aesthetic level and a specific level this album eats it pretty hard. By looking at the pedigree of bands that support or have toured with Portugal the Man you'd expect something more than this tepid modernized take on riff-rock. (Aside: Didn't The White Stripes already decide it'd be funny to bring blues and rocknroll into modern pop music? I didn't think we needed that for ironic indie rock too.) At the end of the day, this album is not even worth the hard drive space or the compact disc it's going to be printed on. If anything the bass playing should be appreciated by reading the tabs rather than sitting through the entirety of this slumping sophomore LP.