Review Summary: Psychedelic rock straining to get out of the box.
It’s either a blatant disregard for quality control or a remarkable ability to maintain consistency when a band releases as many albums as years it’s been in existence – if you count Portugal. The Man’s various EPs and one all-acoustic counterpart LP, the Portland-based psychedelic quartet has already far exceeded all normal bounds of output. Where other bands might have burnt out, Portugal. The Man have already traced a remarkable creative arc, from jam-band-ish prog to a roots rock securely situated in the psychedelia of T. Rex and similar glam with 2009’s high water mark The Satanic Satanist
. In the Mountain in the Cloud
shares many similarities with that record’s favorable aspects – a penchant for fuzzy guitar licks married to reverb-heavy hooks that slide off the vinyl as easily as the best of their bellbottom-wearing influences and, of course, singer John Gourley, whose Marc Bolan-esque falsetto defines the band’s timeless sound.
But where The Satanic Satanist
sounded like a new tack for the band and American Ghetto
a grab-bag from their past, In the Mountain in the Cloud
seems like more of the same, albeit with a major label budget that allows for an expanded sound. Not to say that things here a retread; songs are as distinct as they come, from the trippy opener of “So American” to the barnstorming riff and cries of the coming revolution on “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now),” and the band’s palette is well diversified. It’s just that a band as obviously talented as Portugal. The Man, a group who combines standard verse-chorus-verse with midsections as thrilling as the space-rock of “You Carried Us All (Share With Me The Sun)” or switches directions as effortlessly as they do with the sinister synths of “All Your Light (Times Like These)” always seem like they could be doing more. Yes, there’s an added dimension to everything here courtesy of Atlantic Records, from bombastic horns on “Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujah)” (have I mentioned that Portugal. The Man needs to lay off the parenthetical song titles?) to an array of strings that color Gourley’s emotive vocals and more. Everything just seems a little on the safe side, content to roam within the boundaries of chorus and hook and Gourley’s vague hippie platitudes.
Fans of Portugal. The Man’s live show will know just what is missing here – that desire to explore, to step out of self-imposed boundaries every once in a while. For a band known for ten-minute-plus jams in concert and a fearless willingness to experiment, In the Mountain in the Cloud
is surprisingly tame. This worked for The Satanic Satanist
because that record flowed so well and was surprisingly economical; take a track out on that record and the album would have suffered for it. Here, songs like “Senseless” or “Share With Me The Sun” are lovely but don’t really accomplish anything the tunes around them already haven’t. That’s not to say that In the Mountain in the Cloud
isn’t a slice of superb psychedelic rock like its predecessor – it most assuredly is, and songs like “So American” and “All Your Light (Times Like These)” are some of the best of the band’s career. It’s just when “Sleep Forever” closes things out with a triumphant six-and-a-half-minute celebration of the band’s sound, one realizes just what Portugal. The Man is capable of. How the song progresses from a light fingerpicked melody and builds itself up almost entirely on the gradual addition of drums, piano and strings and Gourley’s beautifully ascending vocals is a singularly powerful experience. When the band ties everything together with a wicked guitar solo and ends with gang vocals raised in almost church-like ecstasy, it’s indisputable just what the band can accomplish when they allow themselves a little more room to breathe. There’s nothing wrong with writing four-minute protest songs that relish in the best of their psychedelic influences, but it’ll be when Portugal. The Man really unshackle themselves and start writing what they do best that they will establish themselves as a band on par with their forebears.