A Slice of Fried Gold

Review: Portugal The Man's "American Ghetto"

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Five years, five albums from Wasilla's favorite sons and burgeoning indie stalwarts Portugal The Man, as they are back this week with American Ghetto. While some artists have issues maintaining originality and their creative spirits with an album every two to three years, each and every PTM release us has been unique and well crafted, with Ghetto being no different. While last year's The Satanic Satanists found them creating an amalgamation of their first three records in an almost jubilant throwback to sunny 60's pop, this album does the same thing but gives us that sound with a bit more introspection and darkness.

Just because it's dark though does not mean it is any less effective, as this is an audacious and well crafted pop album with about as much soul as you can find in music today. One of the most impressive things that I think John Gourley, Zack Carothers, and the rest have developed over their years as a band is a real efficiency to their sound.

Take "The Pushers Party" off this album - it moves forward with a very deliberate and almost hypnotic pace throughout its lengths, using the bass, percussion and the vocals to provide the even flow and the guitar to provide the improvisational flair. While the electronic flourishes were used as driving forces on previous releases, the band instead uses them here to elaborate on notes and provide a more full sound. It's as if the band has figured out exactly what it takes to accomplish the best results without overwhelming listeners.

One of the most incredible things about this album is that for eight tracks, we have an exceptional dark, mirror image of what worked (and still works here) on Satanists. While it may not be as immediately pleasing, it grows on you quickly. Then we're given a trifecta of tracks at the very end that in a lot of ways breaks new ground for the band.

"Just a Fool" kicks off the trio, and it begins with a warm synth pulse that slowly increases in volume until Gourley's smooth vocals kick in. This is PTM's most effective ballad that they have crafted to date, and it is also one that benefits from some of the best production the band has ever experienced. Vocal effects are beautifully designed to carry Gourley's vocals into the ether in the latter half of the track, adding a real sense of loss to the song. Not to get overly effusive, but if The Flaming Lips had been a little less madcap and experimental, this is the type of track I could see them making.

The next track is "Some Men", a robustly textured track that begins with one of the flat out best instrumental intros I've heard all year. It starts with what sounds like a killer whale call, some electronic beats, and processed acoustic guitar, and it's haunting and instantly unforgettable. While it fits in really well with the opening eight parts of the album, it (along with "1000 Years") acts as perhaps the most interesting and well made versions of that sound. This song just proves the level of confidence the band is working with, such as the segment that starts at 1:42. It's a wonderfully stunted and muted instrumental section with just Gourley's vocals promising that they were "never gonna change." I hope not.

And then they do.

The last track on first listen was completely bizarre. "When the World Ends" is an absurdly poppy track that fits spiritually and logically in a lot of ways but is still so bizarre to hear from the band straight off.  Is this the same band? It'd be like an orchestra playing funereal tracks for 30 minutes and then saying "to hell with this, Baltimore Colts fight song is go!" With every listen forward, I've grown to appreciate it more and more to the point where I actually think it's my favorite song. Sure it may be the most straightforward track they've ever crafted, but it is so damn melodious and infectious that I defy you to not get sucked in. It's impossible.

This is another step in the right direction as a band for Portugal The Man. It finds them honing their sound even further, proving that they can make sour sound oh so sweet. An often lush album that demands to be listened to with headphones to get the full experience from the exceptional production, this is not an album to be missed. I know I praise the band relentlessly, but they are just so talented it's very hard not to.

Portugal The Man - American Ghetto: A


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