In case you didn’t know it, Portugal. The Man is from Alaska. You normally wouldn’t guess that, given their breezy psychedelic vibes. Also, it’s not like there’s any such things as ‘Alaska vibes’. There’s California vibes and New York City vibes, Southern rock and Chicago blues. But Alaska is somewhat underrepresented in pop culture, so ‘frozen wasteland vibes’ hasn’t been a part of the American music scene. (Meanwhile Europe has Scandinavian black metal and Swedish electronica.) I’m not suggesting that American music fans need more songs about shooting moose or whatever, but it could be an interesting aesthetic if someone wanted to develop one. Portugal. The Man aren’t exactly out to make that a thing – their aesthetic is far too eclectic to be shoeboxed as an aesthetic at all. But here they’re leaning into the white frontier culture, and remind us why man-against-nature epics keep being popular.
I saw Zola Jesus perform at a music festival. Her music is not well served playing to a semi-indifferent crowd in the middle of a muddy field at two in the afternoon. At least it was drizzling slightly. But if I was semi-indifferent myself at the start of her set, I was all in by the end of it. Despite unconducive circumstances, it’s hard not to be blown away by that voice. The ice-goth aesthetic doesn’t hurt either, but it’s all about the voice. It’s music for long nights in dark places. I can’t help thinking it’s no coincidence she comes from places where the winter and the nights are long, the land of the ice and snow, if you will. A Wisconsinite of Russian descent, she knows about the long cold dark hours of the soul. Nothing comforts the wintry spirit like some otherworldly wailing, that’s for sure.
It’s not that often that an instrumental pop song hooks your ear and leaves you so satisfied you don’t even miss singing. Even songs designed for nothing more than taking ecstasy usually insert a vocal track. And it’s especially striking given that the singer missing is the great Charles Bradley. But this Menahan Street Band instrumental interlude from Bradley’s debut album is actually a standout all on its own. It evokes its own story, a little bit melancholy and a little bit optimistic, like any good love story should be. Just fill in your own details.
Okay, first things first: Bombay Bicycle Club are not a group of old Indian men who gather to drink tea and reminisce about colonial times. Although that would be a record I would very much buy. No, they are a group of youngsters from England who are part of the whole indie pop-electronic-chillwave thing of the two-thousand-teens. Which is a movement that, if it’s defined by anything at all, is defined by being pleasant. Just nice chill music made by nice, well-adjusted-seeming young people who don’t appear to be driven by rage and hormones. You may ask yourself, what is rock music without anger and unbridled libido? Well, it’s not exactly rock music anymore, but it’s really quite nice and I’m here for it. As much as I’m sometimes entertained by other people’s angst, sometimes I want music that doesn’t yank away at my emotions. I suspect that early 2000’s indie pop like this will come to be remembered, like 80’s adult contemporary, as unimportant and overshadowed by more strident genres. But, you know what, I like it. I’m a thirtysomething adult person who can’t be entertained by angst all the fucking time.
Here’s an artist you should start getting to know: Zola Jesus. Hers is both an unusual story and yet a very thoroughly modern one. To make it short and sweet, she’s a child of Russian emigres, born Nika Danilova, raised in small-town Wisconsin, who started her musical career making tapes in her bedroom and posting them on the internet. She built an audience of fans who were entranced by her otherworldly voice and ice-witch aesthetic. She’s made five albums and still lives in Wisconsin. That’s a modern-day, internet-age ascent to… not exactly fame, but the kind of niche success that outlasts mere celebrity and allows for decades of artistic growth. In pre-internet times, weirdo artists had to built their weirdo careers by locating themselves in the kind of cultural centers where weird-taste having people gather, playing and touring incessantly, and hoping for a write-up in one of a handful of influential publications. Nowadays you can do those things without leaving the comfort of your home. Word of mouth is still word of mouth, though, and self-promotion is still work, so I’m not saying that bedroom artists who make it out of their bedrooms are less deserving of acclaim. It’s just that they’re less likely to die trying. Kids these days can just network and self-promote without having to step in bigger stars’ vomit in the back hallway of the CBGB.
This is my favorite Arctic Monkeys song, the one that made me think of them as more than a retro-garage rock band. It’s got atmosphere and grandeur, which every band should aspire to. There’s a line than not every group crosses between promising and fully grown, and I would place this track firmly on the fully grown side. In the music field – whether rock, pop, or crunk – becoming fully grown is hardly a necessity. The music industry rewards youth, raw energy and sophomoric ideations. There’s been many stars who never rose to the height of their creative powers because they had so much success being young and stupid they either died young or retired. And with rock bands being an embattled species, it’s particularly nice to see a rock band that gets heralded as important and does something to live up to that besides dying young.
Portugal. The Man, stealin’ from the sixties again. Can’t complain about it – they nail the whole psychedelic rock sound so well that if I didn’t know better I’d be wondering what obscure Haight-Ashbury collective is responsible for this. They got it right, right down to the song titles. What I can’t help but wonder with these guys is just how serious they’re being. You can’t fault their musicality, but is there a subtle element of ironic mockery at play? It may be that I’ve just been raised to expect ironic mockery in everything and have a hard time accepting sincere homage as real, being the jaded millennial that I am. But this is now, and you can’t just sell sunshiny melodies without a dark evil underside. If you’ve ever watched any of Portugal. The Man’s videos, they’re usually as dark as the songs are tuneful. If the music isn’t exactly ironic – and I think that it’s too lovingly well made to be – then it’s at least self-aware.