I never get tired of listening to Evil Friends. Ever since 2013, it’s been a favorite. One thing comes to mind now, though, that goes a long way towards explaining why Portugal. The Man appeals to me so much. It’s that I really like male singers with high voices. It’s pretty unusual and I find it charming. John Gourley’s entire vocal range is full-on falsetto. Not as much as Rhye’s lead singer Milosh, who sounds so much like a woman that it blows away the entire concept of biological gender itself, but Gourley definitely has a uniquely androgynous voice. Without seeing what the group looks like, you could question if the singer is male or female, or even come to the conclusion that there’s one of both. Then you see them and they’re just a bunch of totally average-looking dudes. Like, not even the kind of dudes who think they’re hot edgy rebellious rock stars for wearing eyeliner and earrings. Just a bunch of guys who need to shave better. But, damn, they sound like nothing else.
It’s always tricky to guess what, out of things that seem catchy and appealing at any given moment, will still be those things when the moment has passed. It’s the cold and unpredictable eye of history, which consigns most popular fads to the memory hole while exalting some obscure thing that only 25 people had noticed as world-changing. I know that not everything I initially wanted to listen to every day ended up staying a favorite, and the reverse. The year before last I declared Portugal. The Man’s Woodstock to be one of my favorite albums of the year. I pre-ordered it on vinyl and everything, being all ahead of the curve and whatnot, and now I have to live with hearing a soft-pop cover of Feel It Still as a corporate workplace playlist staple. That’s a pretty hard tumble from indie and cool into corporate-approved fake indie cool. Nonetheless, it’s not shaking me from my faith that this record is a keeper. History will decide what it will, but I’m going to go on listening to Woodstock like it’s the hit of the week.
Portugal. The Man are from Alaska, which means that they can see Russia from their house (Lord, I never get tired of that joke!) which should give them a unique perspective of what it means to be American. Seriously, though, Alaska is not a proper state; it has a different history, demographic makeup and culture than the proper United States, not to mention a radically different environment. I would imagine that being Alaskan actually would give one a nice remove from which to watch the American culture wars. Just don’t expect to hear about it from this band. Portugal. The Man is not here to write polemics or make comments about the unfolding world. Their songs are not about anything you can put your finger on – they’re just poetic and melodic. And that’s really a relief. I don’t actually want to hear another song about what it means to be ‘so American’ – I already know it’s not gonna be anything good. I just want to hear a catch song.
Going back to the summer of 2013, a great year for music. It must’ve been some kind of serendipity, but I discovered a lot of artists in 2013. There were just so many great songs on the radio, the kind that make you say to yourself, “What is this, I want more!” Portugal. The Man was one of those groups, with some amazingly catchy songs like Modern Jesus and Purple Yellow Red and Blue. The album Evil Friends has become a favorite, a definite keeper, one of those records that you remember an entire decade by. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend it.
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.
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.
Portugal. The Man is great at mining the 1960’s, as evidenced by their breakout success of last year. Of course it’s funny that they’ve finally made it to breakout status after making records for more than ten years. Maybe they haven’t hit mainstream as soon as they could have, but sometimes it’s good to take the time to perfect your craft and whatnot. And as you can hear here, they were crafting hit-worthy time-traveling earworms in 2011. I admit I haven’t gone as far back as their 2006 stuff yet, but I’m going to soon and I’m optimistic that it will be more of the same fun spirit.