Wednesday, August 16, 2017

album review: 'woodstock' by portugal. the man

Oh, this is awkward - mostly because if you had told me a few months ago I was going to be putting together this particular review under these circumstances, I would have called you crazy, and yet...

Okay, let me back up. A couple months ago, I was actually contacted by Portugal. The Man and their management to produce a video where I could give a 'review' of one of their upcoming songs for their new album Woodstock, that they would use in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way in their promotional material. Now I know a bunch of critics I like and respect contributed to this, but I didn't for three main reasons: one, it felt perilously close to something that might compromise my critical ethics and I'd prefer to be safe than sorry; two, if I had done that video I'd feel obliged to cover the record and I'd prefer to use my schedule additions for records I had a vested interest in reviewing; and finally, it's a Portugal. The Man record, who the hell was going to care? 

Yeah, I know, in retrospect now it feels a bit dismissive, but Portugal. The Man has never been an indie rock act I've ever had interest in. They've never been a huge critical darling as they flirted with electronic and psychedelic textures, and I personally am not a huge fan of frontman John Gourley's vocals or songwriting, but I wouldn't begrudge anybody being a fan of the group. They were fine enough, I guess, but I never found them interesting enough to pursue more, especially once they signed to Atlantic and brought Brian Burton behind the production boards - and if you've seen my reviews talking about Burton's production over the past few years, you'd understand why. And then 'Feel It Still' broke the top 40 and topped the rock charts and suddenly over a decade into their career Portugal. The Man actually had a bonafide hit! It's a weird feeling seeing that and realizing you could have been part of their promotional effort, but now I at least understand why so many people want me to cover this, so let's give 'em what they want: what did we find with Woodstock?

Honestly, I got pretty much what I expected - a serviceable enough indie record from Portugal. The Man that has many of the mixed strengths and frustrations that I've seen across much of their work already, with maybe a few tracks that took tentative steps towards accessibility but much more that would fit easily into what you'd expect from their sound. Now granted, I say this without deep intimacy with every single one of their projects - I did my relisten through their discography and honestly their material just started blurring together - and I've heard from some fans that this does reflect a more notable shift outside of the more interesting psychedelic textures that colored earlier records, but truth be told, maybe a step outside of that could be good for the band.

I should explain, and the most appropriate place is with the production and instrumentation. And here's the thing - in relistening to Portugal. The Man's back catalog I did get hints of a spacier, weirder side that was agreeable, but what always stood out for me was how the band was able to marry those tones to sharper grooves and hooks - less Flaming Lips and more Temples, except where the latter band opted for a more retro-leaning pickup, Portugal. The Man opted for much cleaner tones and relied on weird guitar filters, synths, and electronic layers to intensify that psychedelia. And yet going to Woodstock which apparently is aiming for a more radio-friendly approach, I can't help but see that as more of a blessing for the group, because when they pull back towards psychedelic rock on this project it nearly always misfires. The ugly cluttered synth and guitar layers on 'Easy Tiger', the flimsy four bars of washed out guitar solo on 'So Young', the guitar interludes and oily synth wells on 'Mr. Lonely', the claustrophobic watery layers against a painfully thin fake percussion line on 'Noise Pollution' that the groove tries to punch through, they're elements of 'weirdness' that just feel tacked on. And sure, the liquid guitars behind much of 'So Young' might feel like a languid Chili Peppers reject and 'Keep On' has a mid-to-late 90s choppy strum that can't help but clash a little awkwardly against some of those vocal samples tacked on, but they are indicative of a focus on a melodic groove, which is where the record has real strength. In retrospect it's no surprise 'Feel It Still' has done so well with the retro-soul foundation in the bass, and that's a similar formula that works even better on the sharper edges of 'Live In The Moment' or the noisy chop of the riff of 'Rich Friends' even if that melody on the hook reminds me a bit of the Bee Gees' theme song for 'Grease'. Granted, on the flip side with the stiff blocky reggae of 'Tidal Wave', which sticks out like a sore thumb on this record, which from the composition to every weedy layer screams like a song for crossover appeal.

Granted, some of this could have been alleviated by the vocals... and look, I've gone on the record in this review saying I'm not crazy about John Gourley's vocals, but the truth is more that I'm underwhelmed by them and I'm not convinced he leverages his otherwise decent falsetto as well as he could. Sure, I personally like his lower range on 'Live In The Moment', which tends to complement the more languid grooves a bit more effectively, but with the right multi-tracking or backing support that falsetto has enough clarity to click... but that would imply the multi-tracking and vocal production was remotely consistent, which it is not. The most egregious example is on 'Mr. Lonely', which pulls in Fat Lip from the Pharcyde for a tacked on outro verse, but why this song features pitched down verses from Zoe Manville before tacking autotune on Gourley's vocals only serves to highlight synthetic edges to the production that are just distracting, which later crops up again on 'Noise Pollution' and only serve to take away from strong underlying grooves. Now normally I'd be inclined to point at Brian Burton, as his fingerprints are all over some of the oily tones on 'Mr. Lonely' and 'Number One', but the truth is that of all the producers that Portugal. The Man brought in, and I wouldn't say any one of them gives the band an edge or accentuates the groove enough, or at least choosing synth tones that could blend effectively and not stick out in gummy splotches, covering up otherwise some really solid melodic grooves and hooks at the roots of these songs. Hell, when the production gets out of its own way, you get some great tunes!

But then we're stuck going to the lyrics and themes... and can I say right out of the gate that for as much as Portugal. The Man want to call back to an earlier era, there's something that feels a bit mercenary as they strip-mine older tones, melodies, and even samples to recreate a Woodstock '69 feeling of revolution? And it starts early with 'Number One', where you have a sample from the late Richie Haven's 'Freedom' that was speaking to a much more soulful feeling of anxiety and depression... and then Portugal. The Man uses it to set up their rubbery warping song about how they're being forced to recycle old ideas to seem relevant? That song sets up the cynical layer of nihilism that seeps through so much of the lyrics on this record, how so much of culture and human interaction is disposable and they're just cribbing whatever they can along the way... which seemed to be the attitude when it came to some of the lyrical choices too, where on songs like 'Easy Tiger' and 'Rich Friends' Gourley admits in annotations he knows they're stupid but he used them anyway. And yet when you juxtapose that flippant attitude with songs that require more sincerity, like the introspection of 'Mr. Lonely' or the attempts at political statements like on 'Noise Pollution', it undercuts the message and feels even more like hopping on a protest bandwagon, even cribbing from an older era to do it because they don't have the conviction to get there themselves - to quote 'Feel It Still', they're 'rebels just for kicks', and even if they do feel something lingering, there isn't quite the conviction to usher it back themselves. Now even with that said, there are points where this can work: both 'So Young' and 'Live In The Moment' rely on a veneer of control masking something more desperate, but on the flipside the cynicism hits a peak on 'Rich Friends', leeching off people people who are more popular and wealthy almost swiveling into pitch black melodrama... and yet even still, maybe it's a factor of Gourley's delivery or the production that's screaming for real bite, but something can't help but feel calculated here, and it's that sort of calculation that just rubs my more punk side the wrong way.

But as a whole... look, I was pretty hard on this project, but it's more because there's a core to this record that could have been executed better, even speaking outside of the context of Portugal. The Man's previous albums. Yeah, there are duds here and I personally can find cynicism and detached calculation towards social change an exasperating attitude, especially right now, but there are also a few really solid tunes and a core of grooves that make this record passable in my books, netting a very light 6/10 and a cautious recommendation. If you're looking to pick this up having heard 'Feel It Still', you'd probably enjoy a few other tracks here if not the project as a whole, which is pretty much attitude to it. Otherwise... eh, at this point of their careers I have no clue if Portugal. The Man are going to double down on a more refined and tight sound or continue to split the difference to middling results, so if you're curious this has its merits, but otherwise, I wouldn't say you're missing that much.

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