26 March 2010

Catching up with Portugal. The Man and OK Go

We have all heard bands that when we heard them, we may have liked them, but never got round to really taken a closer listen to. It has nothing to do with talent – but it has everything to do with timing. Sort of like when you meet new people, depending where you are in life, either you hit it off, sort of hit it off, like the person but don’t hit it off, or simply do not hit it off. After listening to the new releases by Portugal. The Man and OK Go, I had to go back and listen to their past material again and smack myself for not really listening closer in the past. So I thought I would kick off a week of trying to catch up on some material already released in 2010 by finally giving the credit and respect to these two bands that really deserve it. Enjoy!

Portugal. The Man: “American Ghetto”

Sarah Palin is not the only noteworthy citizen from Wasilla, Alaska USA; Portugal. The Man, though based out of Portland, Oregon USA, hails from Wasilla – and is really a band, not just one man. And after doing my research, PTM in many way reminds me 80s musicians, in that the output of new material is prolific to say the least – how I remember the days of a new Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cure, Duran Duran, or Depeche Mode release every year or two! With a release every year since 2006 (two in 2009, as the second was the acoustic accompaniment to the first), “American Ghetto” (2 March 2010) is the band’s fifth studio album. Merging (experimental) rock with an indie pop sensibility, the album is a “ghetto” of musical hodgepodges that amazingly work together. Very few bands on the market have the ability to be so prolific, and yet sway away from using filler material and substandard songs.

Another way they appeal to that part of me that is stuck in the 80s is that they make it really hard to define their sound. Of course, this is one of the reasons the term “experimental” was invented, but I am starting to develop an allergic reaction to that term as much as I do towards “alternative.” At the heart of it all, this is a neo-psychedelic rock band, which infuses trip-hop, electronic, and current indie trends, mixed up with a pop sensibility that is subtle. Though they may not reinvent themselves album to album, PTM continues to push the envelope of what is expected of them and develop/mature their sounds. And with “American Ghetto,” they have definitely come of age.

This is a monster of an album. Though clocking in under forty-minutes, as a whole you will be drowned by music that is syrupy sweat or eerily cinematic, highly crafted ever shifting to broody and visceral. Forget about guessing what may come next – each track rolls right in as an unexpected surprise from the last track. Opening with “The Dead Dog,” you are arrested by the guitar rift, funky beat, and the pensiveness of the actual music. The hollow “60 Years” is bluesy and sultry, as it stumbles over its own beat. “1000 Years” (my favorite on the album) is one of those sonically deceptive songs, in that you are bobbing your head, tapping your feet, getting absorbed into the moment, and then you hear: “First I stand then I die, I became all mankind; as I drip from mine eyes, I washed away to a smaller size. We’ll wait 1000 years until the end of time…” Lyrically poetically bombastic, there is no way you are prepared for this profundity. The album closes with “When the War Ends.” Essentially a pop song, it is hard to figure out if the statement they are making is poetic or has real social consequence (which is what I hope their intention was): “When the war ends, yeah, we’ll wonder what it was about.”

And when you are done with your listen of the album, you realize just what a ghetto of music this really is. And perhaps there is a metaphor in there about the new American ghettos, the suburbs, ultimately what the album has to offer is not a discourse on the dissatisfactions of suburban life, but rather an album which contains such diversity of elements that it is impossible not to be blown away. I am rarely this impressed with an album, but continuing that trend of 2010, Portugal. The Man has taken that bar and raised it up a bit more. “American Ghetto” is the perfect postmodern soundtrack: steeped in pastiche, fragmentation, and self-discontent, the album is flirty, ingenious, and perceptive.

Track Listing:
1. The Dead Dog
2. Break
3. 60 Years
4. All My People
5. 1000 Years
6. Fantastic Pace
7. The Pushers Party
8. Do What We Do
9. Just a Fool
10. Some Men
11. When the War Ends

Keep up with Portugal. The Man at their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

OK Go: “Of the Blue Colour of the Sky”

Taking their influence from a book published in 1876 (“The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky”), OK Go released their third album “Of the Blue Colour of the Sky” (on major label 12 January 2010, will be re-released on their own label, Paracadute, on 1 April 2010), this is the meeting of art rock with solid pop sensibility. And like many of the bands on the scene today, OK Go refers back to the 80s for their cues, but in no way give into the revival fever or fervor. I am reminded of what poet T.S. Eliot wrote: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” OK Go steps to the front of the class, because they are not rehashing but rather learning from and expanding on prior ideas, usurping them and making it theirs. And the cues are not just electropop or new wave, but even Prince gets thrown in the mix.

The album opens with the lead single “WTF?” And with Prince-esque vocals, Damian Kulash sings, “It’s like a sky dive, you’re getting high. That kinda thrill that’ll maybe kill you. It’s like I’m eye-to-eye, wild eyed. Oh I don’t know what to tell you, there’s just this thing about ‘cha.” The second track, “This Too Shall Pass,” the second single off of the album, follows. But it is the third song, “All Is Not Lost” that I am stuck on – I like this song so much, I have set my iTunes to play it over and over and over again as I write about “Of the Blue Colour of the Sky.” Some aggressive strumming, syncopated beats, and keys for ambience, this is one of those songs that should definitely be a single. Carefree but not frivolous, hopeful but not sappy (“And when they say it is all lost, all is not lost, all is not lost… at all”), upbeat and poppy but not dancey or bubblegum, this is the kind of pop song that is difficult to pull off – and I tip my hat to OK Go.

The album is full of many more unforgettable songs. “Skyscrapers” borders between eerie and new wave, while “White Knuckles” has that big 80s, Prince feel to it: “And you can’t go back same way you came; round all the pieces up, but they just don’t fit the same.” And as for the lead guitar, they keep to that Prince feel – it is almost unbelievable that it is not Prince himself playing. Another great “Prince” moment is “End Love,” which leans more towards Prince’s sensual side. Leaving Prince behind, there is “Before the Earth Was Round.” Think of a less funkier, but rockier, version of Madonna’s song “Nobody’s Perfect”: “Before the earth was round, there was no end to things; no one tried to measure what they knew. Everything was warm and everyone would love, and every contradiction was true.” Now I am not sure that the pre-world-is-round days were completely lovey-dovey (Inquisitions and all), but there is something to say about the underlying idea of the song: as we progress scientifically/technologically, this world becomes colder and colder, all the while people become more and more detached.

From 80’s (especially Prince) influences to their own quirky take on pop sensibility, OK Go most definitely pulled of their best album to date. “Of the Blue Colour of the Sky” is an unexpected surprise, which not only pays homage to the past, but also demonstrates new relevant ways to use old cues and how to expand them in a field full of imitation. Yes, this is stealing as Eliot would conclude, but thievery rarely sounds this good. And to steal two lines from the closing track, “In the Glass,” after you listen to this album and the silence flows in, you will feel that “It was clear and bright like a mid-winter sunlight; my heart beat counting down a moment precise and quiet.”

Track Listing:
1. WTF?
2. This Too Shall Pass
3. All Is Not Lost
4. Needing/Getting
5. Skyscrappers
6. White Knuckles
7 I Want You So Bad I Can’t Breathe
8. End Love
9. Before the Earth Was Round
10. Last Leaf
11. Back From Kathmandu
12. While You Were Asleep
13. In the Glass
14. Louisiana Land, U.S.A iTunes
14. White Knuckles, Static Revenger club mix, U.K. iTunes

Keep up with OK Go at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.

Here is their video for “This Too Shall Pass” from their MySpace Video page.

This Too Shall Pass (RGM Version)

OK Go | MySpace Music Videos

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