Author: Gene

Mercer reclaims pop’s throne with Port of Morrow

It’s been a long time coming, but with the latest album from The Shins, Port of Morrow the “band’s” fourth long player, it becomes abundantly clear that James Mercer is a master songwriter – and the one in charge.

Who knows why it’s been five years since Wincing the Night Away – a solid, if not underappreciated album – after which Sir Elton John dubbed Mercer the most talented songwriter.

The fact is that, for true pop music lovers, it was worth the wait.

Mercer has currently created a musical kingdom (a part of Portlandia?) from which to explore his sonic adventures; Port of Morrow (an actual location in Portland) allowed him to bring in members of the original band (court jester Marty Crandall guests on keyboards, Dave Hernandez provides bass and guitar work) along with Pacific Northwest icons (Janet Weiss provides some solid drumming on the standout single, “Simple Song”, and a handful of other tunes).

Perhaps it is because of this mix of the old and the new that the record occasionally pays homage to some of the great sounds to be found on the band’s debut (Oh, Inverted World) on tracks like “September”…while still exploring Mercer’s fascination with country-bar balladry (“40 Mark Strasse”) and his continued inspiration via 60’s pop (“Bait and Switch”).

Even with the different players, and the sonic shifts, the album is one of the band’s most cohesive. Mercer’s combination of hooks you think you’ve heard before, along with lyrics that run the gamut from clever playfulness to melancholy memory, remind the informed listener that it is possible to have solid songcraft for an entire album.

Perhaps Mercer knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that in The Shin’s five-year hiatus, there really haven’t been any serious challengers to his throne.

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Van Etten wows, War on Drugs channel Springsteen live in Portland

It doesn’t hurt when Bon Iver covers you, The National produce you, SXSW adores you, and hip websites anoint you the latest musical “it” girl.

That being said, Sharon Van Etten – touring on the strength of her latest, Tramp, didn’t disappoint a packed house at The Aladdin. After a solid set from Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs (channeling early Springsteen, and a self-professed love of The Waterboys – who they covered in their encore), Van Etten and her talented supporting cast seemed right at home in the intimate confines of The Aladdin.

Though Van Etten was the clear attraction, a reasonable contingent of folks were also on hand to support the (arguably) equally talented Heather Woods Broderick, who provided flawless harmony vocals, keyboards, and guitar. Broderick (affectionately nicknamed “Bro-Derek” by Van Etten during their tour) is a Portlander, and Smells Like Pop has witnessed her talent first hand as a member of Horse Feathers (along with her brother, Peter Broderick).

The band fleshed out the subtle and nuanced dynamics of Tramp – taking an already solid record and bringing it lovingly to life. Guitarist Doug Keith captured the gothic-twang necessary to make “Give Out” shine, while drummer Zeke Hutchins allowed the power and menace of “Serpents” to be showcased.

With her talent on an upward trajectory, hopefully the young Van Etten won’t get pitchforked over for the next inevitable find.

Field Music’s latest unearths more pop gems

Brothers David and Peter Brewis (the core of Sunderland England’s Field Music) have channeled numerous disparate elements in concocting their brilliant 4th long-player, Plumb. Hints of Yes and Steely Dan (chief songwriter/vocalist David even sounds like a young Donald Fagen at times) appear, along with their continued channeling of XTC. However, this is made all the more listenable by amazing hooks that rival Guided by Voices in frequency and abrupt change.

Plumb builds on a legacy of songcraft that the unrivaled (well, maybe James Mercer of The Shins would be a contemporary) Field Music have been developing for over a decade (2010’s Measure – a double album – was arguably that year’s best pop record). Plumb clocks in at about 35 minutes – frustrating for those of us who want more of them, but perfect for our hurried times – indeed, the underlying theme of the lyrics, which address (in a whimsical way) frustrations with the daily commute, and the need to acquire more “useless shit” and treat people like fecal matter.

This album is definitely a “grower”, which should reward the patient and intelligent listener upon repeated spins.

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Luz Elena Mendoza’s band, on Court the Storm, bring latin radiance to Portland pop

If you’ve already heard Y La Bamba (there’s a reasonable chance, what with all the positive – and well deserved – press they’re getting, including multiple plugs on NPR, where the album is currently streaming in its entirety), then this is old news. Their new record, Court the Spark (released by Portland’s Tender Loving Empire), is everything that is good about cultures clashing…lead singer Luz Elena Mendoza’s Mexico-via-California-and-Oregon roots clearly influencing an otherwise Americana take on pop.

But Y La Bamba is, in the best sense, a band. Mendoza’s bandmates contribute everything from solid musicianship, to rich vocal harmonies. And all the while, the mix is tasteful, striking and subtle at the same time – due in no small part to Portland-resident Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and his long acquaintance (perhaps his creation of?) latin-tinged modern pop music. There’s even a little treat on the record with the inclusion of Americana vocal goddess Neko Case, a long time fan of the band.

There will be a record release party with the band at Music Millenium (which has a great background story on the Y La Bamba posted) on March 4th (at 3 pm) and a show at the Doug Fir on April 21st.

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Great live music dies, while studio zombies like Lana Del Rey “live”

My friends – please excuse me while I shake my cane – but I was listening to the radio this Sunday morning, when the deejay (a younger fellow) reminded me about the sad news that The Woods (perhaps Portland’s most unique – and likely best – music venue) is no more…

The intimate space played host to a slew of artists off the promotional and hype-driven radar. The deejay echoed as much, and talked about a particularly memorable show delivered by a shy musician from Colorado.

Smells Like Pop was able to enjoy the venue, as well – one of our more memorable shows was watching our friend, and London’s musical gem, Alessi’s Ark perform her magic there. It didn’t hurt that the venue was run by Ritchie Young of Portland band Loch Lomond. His sincerity and welcoming attitude helped make The Woods a special place. The fact that it was a former funeral home, with its unique atmosphere, and haunted sound, only added to its mystique.

But it is no more.

Perhaps with a sense of irony, the same radio station seconds later advertised a visit for a live performance from Lana Del Rey. Only time will tell if she has any staying power (or talent) – but she seems to represent everything that The Woods was not…ostentatiousness (the rumors of “enhanced” lips), hype (if you haven’t already heard about her, crawl out from under that rock!), wealth (her father is apparently a dot.com billionaire), studio-wizardry (Damon Albarn – Gorillaz, etc. – is rumored to be working with her), glamour (her name was “inspired” by hanging out in Miami with friends) – a symbolic nod to our culture’s severe ADD, as much was made from her SNL appearance after all of ONE decent song to her credit.

The same local radio station will be hosting a live session from The Shins’ James Mercer – who at least has a few albums under his belt.

The Shins (with a new lineup) also have an album (Port of Morrow) due out in March (so do the Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea ); Field Music has a new album (Plumb) due out in early February, the Dirty Projectors have a new one due in spring, and Outkast has something coming out this year.

In the meantime, you might find me listening to music in the woods (you know, with real trees, plants, and stuff).

You be (Kim Jong) illin’! Though this pirate is dead, the CD aint, yet…with a couple of exceptions, I actually purchased a physical copy of my favorite albums of the year.

  • Wye Oak – Civilian
  • Kate Bush50 Words for Snow
  • St. VincentStrange Mercy
  • Peggy Sue – Acrobats
  • Destroyer – Kaputt
  • The WeekndHouse of Balloons
  • Atlas Sound – Parallax
  • Alessi’s ArkTime Travel
  • The AntlersBurst Apart
  • Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues
  • WireRed Barked Tree

Honorable mentions: The Roots – Undun, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical, Tom Waits – Bad as Me, Tuneyards – Whokill, The Decemberists – The King is Dead, Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine, Chad Vangaalen – Diaper Island, Cass McCombs,- Wit’s End, Radiohead – King of LImbs, Stephen Malkmus – Mirror Traffic, EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints, Real Estate – Days

Wye Oak’s latest, Civilian, a full and dynamic record

Though they slipped a bit beneath my radar, the band Wye Oak’s 2011 album – Civilian– has recently experienced a resurgence in this writer’s circles, as friends and I have been drawn in by the sound created by lead singer/guitarist Jenny Wasner, and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack. They inhabit a similar caucophonous pop region to their Baltimore counterparts, Beach House (also a duo); however, their album is frequently propelled more by the percussion (on songs like the My Bloody Valentine-esque “Holy Holy  “ and “Hot as Day” ). Wasner’s vocals, haunting in their own right, can remind of Cat Power – but with a more expressive and dynamic range.

I’d usually provide a “heads-up” regarding live performance, except that the band (as openers for The National) grabbed two cups of Starbucks, rather than some Stumptown – doing two shows in Seattle, nothing in Portland. My buddy Jake, after having seen them last Spring at Mississippi Studios, felt that their studio output was far stronger than their live show – so maybe they’re just practicing before they return.

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Parish helps UK band Peggy Sue create moody gem

Acrobats, the second album from unapologetic PJ Harvey devotees Peggy Sue, has the trio abandoning their folkier past…plugging in, grabbing producer John Parish, and doing their best impression of their muse’s early recordings. And while there are plenty of sonic parallels, the record’s poppier qualities give Acrobats (for better or worse) a much easier entry point than just about any of Polly Jean’s recordings. There also seems to be a nod towards Sonic Youth’s sound, as well.

The album is currently streaming on the band’s website.

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It’s that time of year in the Pac Northwest to succumb to nature’s tears…

However, there’s no denying rains importance – and many a musical artist has acknowledged this, some better than others. I’ve started a list (by no means comprehensive) of songs where rain is a prominent feature. Some of these have rain in the title; some do not.

  • Husky Rescue – My World
  • The Blue Nile – Tinseltown in the Rain
  • Prince – Purple Rain
  • Jesus and Mary Chain – Happy When it Rains, Nine Million Rainy Days
  • Eurythmics – Here Comes the Rain Again
  • The Carpenters – Rainy Days and Mondays
  • Nick Cave – Aint Gonna Rain Anymore, Rainy Night in Soho
  • Bryan Ferry (Bob Dylan?) – A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
  • Dusty Springfield – I think It’s Gonna Rain Today
  • Aha – Crying in the Rain
  • Gene Kelly – Singing in the Rain
  • Sunny Day Real Estate – The Rain Song
  • The Beatles – Rain
  • Led Zeppelin – The Rain Song
  • REM – I’ll Take the Rain, South Central Rain
  • Echo and the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
  • The The – Kingdom of Rain
  • Madness – The Sun and The Rain, Grey Day

PLEASE SHARE YOUR FAVORITE RAIN RELATED SONG(S) BELOW – and maybe include one that rains on your parade…

Atlas Sound’s prolific Cox adds hooks to spacy beauty

With apologies to the memory of James Brown, Bradford Cox might be the hardest working man in showbiz (well, at least the indie music scene). Between his band Deerhunter, other side projects, and Atlas Sound, there’s never a shortage of his material to access. But the adage “quantity doesn’t equal equality” can frequently be applied. Though Cox can never be accused of putting out garbage, the sheer volume sometimes begs for some editing and consolidation.

So it is nice to see that Parallax, his latest Atlas Sound long player, seems to have been reigned in a bit – and has been invested with some solid melodic hooks. Where Parallax still has the bedroom-pop noodlings consistently found in Cox’s work, songs like “Shakes”, “Mona Lisa”, “Praying Man” (with a little harmonica) and “My Angel is Broken” all hint at Cox’s appreciation of 60’s girl group pop, and its inherent catchiness. There are still plenty of quieter moments, like the gorgeous (and appropriately titled) piano-meditation “Doldrums”, and the gentle guitar of “Terra Icognita”.

(ps: If you like to hear what may have influenced this, check out the recently released “The Smile Sessions” by The Beach Boys. Quite excellent)

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