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Music Review: Portugal. The Man – Church Mouth

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“This band is from Alaska.” How often do you hear yourself uttering these words? You’d be saying them a lot more if you listened to Wassila Alaska’s own Portugal. The Man.

Situated just inland from Anchorage, Wasilla, the “Home of the Iditarod,” does not inspire visions reminiscent of rock and roll extremes – or any extreme other than cold for that matter. But given time, they might just be able to proudly tack “Home of Portugal. The Man” up onto their website right next to “Alaska’s First Tree City, USA.”

Portugal. The Man is one of those bands is that either the subject of highly exaggerated praise or unmitigated scorn by rock critics. Staking claims as to the potency of their “esoteric, shape-shifting” rock certainly doesn’t help. And while the band may be unfounded in many of their claims to mind-boggling complexity, they admittedly do offer a unique vision in their music that is definitely worth exploring for fans of Indie rock.

Carefully carving around any classically defined rock ‘genre,’ it’s probably best to file Church Mouth under ‘rock, prog’. If variety is the spice of life then Church Mouth is a spicy meatball – bluesy hard rock, driving arena rock, and modern day alternative Indie sounds abound to create a musical diversity steeped in contemporary and classic progressive rock traditions in short form, replete with easily marked influences that can be named in nearly every track. The leadoff title track is White Stripes with a Mars Volta time signature. For some reason the chorus of “Telling Tellers Tell Me” sounds like Blood Sugar Sex Magik-era Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Shade” takes a page from the TV on the Radio playbook. “Bellies Are Full” and “Children” take a turn for the Zeppelin, minus the pseudo-mystical Lord of the Rings lyrics.

Church Mouth’s influences may be easily identified, numerous and diverse as they are, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Portugal. The Man has much to offer in the way of originality, too. The schizophrenic “Sugar Cinnamon” goes from pseudo-drum and bass verses to electro-boogie stomp choruses and back again. But “My Mind” is the radio-ready standout track. A perfect musical diorama of disaffected, yet privileged youth, I can see this song used as the track over the opening title sequence of a new dramedy on the CW – the camera tracking sweeping beach vistas as front man John Baldwin Gourley wails the plight of the principal cast – “my mind is all/gone.” My intention is not to undercut the seriousness or effectiveness of the song, but it does reek a little melodramatic. However, “My Mind” has universal appeal with a great chorus, and there’s still plenty of weirdness buried within the track to satisfy the audiophile in you.

There’s a lot going on within Church Mouth, but the listener isn’t bombarded with zithers and mandolins. None of the songs have long instrumental passages symptomatic of prog and the production has an elusive textural feel, which is so important to a band with such a frenetic sound. The result is that Church Mouth is radio-friendly, but not necessarily tailor-made for radio – something that is deceptively hard to pull off and I applaud the band for this achievement.

With Church Mouth, Portugal. The Man has chosen timely influences and wisely at that. Fans familiar with bands such as White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age and Silversun Pickups will find plenty to like about this album, if they don’t mind a little flair for prog. One can only speculate as to the album’s lasting appeal, but it’s a very ‘now’ sound and one that is worthy of attention by both the casual and the serious Indie fan.

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