Northern Soul: Portugal. The Man
No one would blame John Baldwin Gourley if he never listened to oldies again. That's all the frontman of Portugal. The Man listened to when he was growing up — at least until he was old enough to drive himself.
Despite this oversaturation, the classics stuck with Gourley. And last summer, six years after leaving his home in Anchorage suburb Wasilla, Alaska — now known the world over thanks to former mayor/current GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin — to pursue music full-time, he picked up a Beatles songbook and began to learn how to play chord-based songs, rather than the riff-based ones he'd taught himself.
Fittingly, Gourley dedicated the songs he ended up writing — which appear on PtM's new record, Censored Colors — to his parents, and to the stories they told him during those long subarctic days in rural Alaska when the radio didn't pick up many stations.
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"The whole thought of the record is based on how I had been brought up," Gourley explains. "My family is fully about love and respect and supporting the people that can be supported and helping others that can be helped."
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Their impact, however profound, is subtle. Listening to the new record, it's easier to detect the Fab Four's influence on Gourley's songwriting. Rather than just rehashing vintage influences, he and his bandmates have expanded their sensibilities and their sound — which was already pretty broad, with its splashes of soul, indie and Southern rock and ambient music. The wild, experimental riffage, frantic rhythm section and unmistakable vocals that have defined Portugal. The Man are still intact; they're just enhanced.
"We sat down and decided that we have to make this record and we have to do it kind of quick," Gourley notes. "So that's when the chord-based songwriting really came into play. I never wanted it to be a parody or a joke," he stresses.
No worries there. Creating music with Beatlesque bases — a trick that more than a few bands have copped to and a select few have even pulled off — might have been exactly what the band needed to move ahead. The new songs are, as Gourley puts it, "more structured than anything else we've done."
That's impressive considering the music Portugal. The Man has already made. The act formed from the ashes of Anatomy of a Ghost, the post-hardcore band Gourley formed with childhood friend and bassist Zach Carothers. The two had been working on songs for Portugal. The Man since 2004, but still, the minor-keyed and drum-machined Waiter: You Vultures!, released in 2006, came as a shock to many of those familiar with the pair's earlier work, since it was a total left turn from Anatomy's angsty three-guitar attack.
By the time Portugal. The Man released its follow-up, 2007's Southern-rock tinged Church Mouth, drummer Jason Sechrist had been added to the lineup; keyboardist Ryan Neighbors came aboard soon after the album's release. By then, the band had started acquiring a rabid live following, built on a kind of encouraged anarchy.
"We'd have whoever we were touring with just come up and jam with us," says Gourley, "and let them do whatever they wanted." Once Sechrist and Neighbors became permanent members of the band, the guys dialed back the craziness, perhaps inspired by seeing how powerful their Minus the Bear tourmates were.
The uniting factor in all of this experimentation has been Gourley's voice. One of the most beautiful alt-rock falsettos this side of Jim James, it just keeps getting better. Although James and his band, My Morning Jacket, hail from Louisville, Kentucky, about as far as you can get from Alaska, the two acts do share some other similarities.
Both sport sort of odd, bearded frontmen, have a tendency to jam, create studio works that differ quite a bit from their live shows, and have put out at least one record that's a weird version of Southern rock (Church Mouth; MMJ's It Still Moves). But there's one very notable distinction.
Whereas James seems to be moving toward obscuring the natural qualities of his voice (see "Highly Suspicious" off MMJ's new Evil Urges), the new Portugal. The Man record is a swing toward slowing the music down and letting Gourley's voice do its work.
And Gourley's lyrics, which have always been thought-provoking if not wholly comprehensible, now seem distilled into the truly simple but powerful feelings that underlie them. "I guess in all fairness to the other records, I've always tried to write choruses," he explains. "I've always tried to write lyrics that make sense. But I thought it really had to make sense and fit with my parents' views."
The new record does more than that. Both the lyrics and the music fit together in a vision of how to both respect and outgrow a tradition.
"We put together a plan that said that the first half would be our take on '60s and '70s pop music, broken-up songs and more structured than anything we've ever done," Gourley reveals. "The second half would be the blending and joining of all the sounds we've heard growing up and throughout our lives...it makes sense that it flows as one solid piece."
Creating a six-song suite to end the record? That was flirting with pretense. As it turns out, though, Portugal. The Man pulls it off far more successfully than many '70s bands with the same grandiose ideas ever did. Censored Colors, which PtM financed itself — thus the incentive to keep the recording time down to two-and-a-half weeks — was released on Equal Vision last month and features, as usual, Gourley's artwork adorning the cover.
The focus on keeping things in-house matches up with the unassuming approach that has saved the band's penchant for experimentation from the start. "I believe fully in just walking into the studio," declares Gourley, "and whatever sounds best, you just do it."
Well, not exactly whatever.
"There was another plan going into the studio," Gourley confesses, "and it's hilarious to look back on now, with the amount of time we had. What we originally wanted to do was put together a record and send it to somebody in dub sound to mix and do crazy delays and reverbs on it afterwards, though obviously we have no connections in dub whatsoever."
Sounds like someone's reached the latter half of the Beatles catalog. At last.
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