Quick! Name your 350 favorite Portland bands.
Yeah, it’s kind of a tough one. But that number represents the shared wisdom of the 161 local music experts—journalists, bookers, promoters, ex-BNB winners, venue owners, producers and the like—who responded to our eighth annual Best New Band poll. They came up with just over 350 artists they thought deserved recognition as one of Portland’s best (as always, we remind you that the words “best,” “new” and even “band” are all subject to the interpretation of those who responded to our poll—you can see their ballots and get a breakdown of our point system here).
It’s a staggering number—but what’s more impressive is how many of those bands actually are really good. Each year, Portland’s music scene grows—with new bands from within the city limits and imported groups from around the country—and yet, somehow, the music community remains jam-packed not just with awesome artists but awesome people. Shouldn’t things be getting a little cutthroat out there? Shouldn’t bands be firebombing each other’s vans for headlining slots at Mississippi Studios and Doug Fir? For whatever reason, civility remains in place and Portland remains one of the best places in the country to see live music seven nights a week.
While we stand firmly behind these 10 fantastic acts, we also know they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Our hope is that you’ll venture out and find your own local favorites, and involve yourself in a music scene that is truly historic. This year, like every year, I remain humbled by Portland’s awesomeness. It really is way too much awesomeness for one man. So, hopefully—if the awesomeness doesn’t kill me where I stand—I will see you at a show real soon. —Casey Jarman, music editor
1. And And And
Members: Tyler Keene, Nathan Baumgartner, Jonathan Sallas, Ryan Wiggans, Berg Radin, Bim Ditson
Sounds like: A refined, orchestrated version of Wowee Zowee-era Pavement made by kids who grew up listening to hip-hop instead of the Fall.
And And And is talking shit. We’re in the parking lot of the Care Medical & Rehabilitation Equipment building in Northeast Portland, and singer-guitarist Tyler Keene is feeling confident. “I think we could take any band in Portland in a game of three-on-three,” he says, grabbing a beat-up red, white and blue basketball from inside drummer Bim Ditson’s 1993 Ford Aerostar van. Multi-instrumentalist Ryan Wiggans joins Ditson on the back bumper, carefully lifting the collapsible basketball hoop attached to the top of the van—a 10-foot-high monstrosity one has to see to believe—into an upright position. You read that right: And And And, the wildest thing to hit Portland since Rasheed Wallace donned a Blazers jersey, is so committed to the sport of “rigsketball” that it will challenge anyone, anywhere—so long as it can find adequate street light.
After a particularly gloomy spring, tonight is feeling almost balmy—it’s T-shirt weather when the shots start going up and the words get fierce. Bassist Jonathan Sallas ties his long brown locks in a ponytail and rolls up his pant leg to reveal one high sock (like an indie-rock Kerry Kittles); Ditson sheds his leather jacket and takes two long strides, leaps off the van’s back door, and attempts a “bumper jam” on the janky rim. Co-frontman Nathan Baumgartner fires a wild jump shot that barely grazes the side of the wooden backboard, and the band yells in unison, “Chip the wood!” Multi-instrumentalist Berg Radin rolls on the ground in laughter. The cops drive by twice, slowing down on the corner of Northeast Hancock Street and 7th Avenue, but never stopping. This is how And And And rolls on a Saturday night.
The band has every reason to be cocky. In less than two years, And And And—named after a line in the 1991 film The Commitments—has gone from playing empty shows at outer-Portland dives like the Red Room to headlining local showcases at the hip Mississippi Studios. Those early gigs are still things of legend: The band was kicked out of its first show by the sound man; another one was almost shut down after Radin decided to climb the balcony at Valentine’s. To combat crappy sound systems and minimal crowds—and perhaps to cover the fact that the band was still finding its sound—And And And made sure every set was utter chaos. It was the only way to get noticed.
“When we were playing at clubs like Ella Street we were never able to hear ourselves sing, so we sang way too loud,” Keene says, his voice still hoarse from shouting on the court. “We had to scream at the top of our lungs just to make it past the clutter of noise.”
Baumgartner chimes in. “I think we still emulate those early shows. It created the whole thing we go for—it’s like we’re still playing at small clubs being noisy and dumb.”
The story behind the band’s origin is almost as ridiculous. Keene, who grew up in Michigan and lived in New York for five years, moved to Beaverton to design packaging labels for Intel in 2009. Baumgartner was his next-door neighbor, but they met through their significant others—Keene’s wife was walking her dog and ran into Baumgartner’s girlfriend, and a casual conversation revealed that both men were bashful songwriters.
“From the beginning we really liked the idea of having co-lead singers,” Baumgartner says. “But we didn’t just want it to be a songwriter-based thing—we wanted a full band.”
When Baumgartner attended the University of Oregon he played in the Eugene dance-rock group Superdream with Radin, Sallas and Wiggans, so he called up his pals to come practice at Bongo Fury, a 24-hour rehearsal space in Beaverton. Initial sessions were just as loud as the early gigs—they were surrounded by metal bands, and quickly realized that their quieter songs should be saved for the recording studio.
But a group can’t survive on volume alone. So And And And turned to another gimmick, earning its street cred by becoming one of Portland’s most prolific bands. In an era of overnight Internet fame, And And And gets by on old-school hustle: Since March 2010, the six-piece outfit has released two full-length albums (We’ll Be Better Off With the Plants and sophomore effort A Fresh Summer With And And And), four EPs, and Life Ruiner, a split cassette tape with friends the Woolen Men. For most bands, 50 songs is a legacy—for And And And, it’s just another year.
“I think we release music like all the rappers Tyler likes do,” Radin says. “It’s like, we could just hold onto this material, or we can just go out and hustle, drop demos for free, and release songs as we finish them. We would love to release Lil Wayne mixtapes forever.”
Amazingly, quantity has not trumped quality with And And And. Most of the band’s material strikes a perfect balance between dueling aesthetics: feverish, frantic lo-fi punk and cleverly arranged and orchestrated pop aided by trumpet and harmonica (and, oddly, the clarinet—perhaps the least-punk instrument in the world). Keene and Baumgartner trade off lead vocals, but they have similar vocal approaches that have more in common with Isaac Brock’s early Modest Mouse yelps than the bottled intensity of current lauded indie-rock singers like Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug. While And And And’s latest material has grown professional and assured, the vocals are still raw and half-drunk, mixed with so much reverb that it’s often hard to tell just what the hell these guys are singing about.
It’s fitting, then, that the cover of Life Ruiner (which, like most of the band’s discography, was released on cassette) is a mosaic of Old German beer cans: And And And is one of the best drinking bands to hit Portland in years—a caustic and unpredictable live act from post to wire. Onstage the band switches instruments while Keene and Baumgartner howl above the wreckage. During a recent outdoor set at WW’s Eat Mobile food-cart festival, the band took the stage as a train chugged by 20 feet in the background; instead of waiting for it to pass, they yelled, “Train whistle!” and launched into a particularly noisy version of live staple “The 2nd Proposition,” one of the standout songs from A Fresh Summer.
That tune is one of six songs And And And recently re-recorded with Eric Earley and Michael Van Pelt of Blitzen Trapper. The goal is to put out one “real” album and look for a label, while simultaneously readying more new songs for a future mixtape. “The sessions have been songs we’ve already written and done, but we want to release them as a proper album that’s professionally recorded and actually marketable and might appeal to people who don’t want to listen to a tape,” Baumgartner says.
Back by the hoop, things are starting to get serious: Keene and Sallas, both over 6 feet tall, are dominating inside, scoring at will on a series of post-ups and offensive rebounds. Ditson can’t stop talking about the summer rigsketball tournament he’s organizing, where 32 local bands will play three-on-three ball in an NCAA-style bracket. In each matchup, the band with fewer MySpace hits will pick where to park the van and its attached hoop. It’s a pretty egalitarian move on And And And’s part, but it shows that beneath all the band’s loud-mouthed ego, it will always identify with the underdogs. “The original idea behind the whole thing was to have ‘big’ bands play with ‘little’ bands,” Ditson says between shots. “Popularity doesn’t matter to us—you have to bring it on the court, wherever that is.” MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
Members: Tim Perry, Graham Mackenzie, Adam Thompson, Johanna Kunin, Sarah Riddle, Daniel Hunt, Rob Oberdorfer, Kate O'Brien-Clarke.
Sounds like: The Kinks’ Munswell Hillbillies as performed by the Polyphonic Spree.
Listening to AgesandAges’ debut album, Alright You Restless—a bright, shiny disc that mixes gentle Shins-esque vocal experimentation with Southern rock riffage—one gets the distinct impression that this is the happiest band on Earth. But when I meet AgesandAges at frontman Tim Perry’s house in North Portland, no one’s smiling. It’s 6 pm under a smattering of storm clouds and there’s a heated argument unfolding over how many backpacks and suitcases are too many to cram under the seats of the band’s modified 12-passenger van. From behind, the back doors ajar, the Ford E-350 15-passenger van already looks like a screenshot of a near-complete game of Tetris, and only four of the group’s seven members have shown up to load their bags.
But somehow, over the course of the next half hour, everything (including me: I’m following AgesandAges for the first few hours of its five-week tour) has found its place. The loaded van pulls away from the house and moves about eight blocks before Perry pulls over. “OK, I forgot my sunglasses,” he says.
A few miles down I-5 and there’s no sign of the tensions that flared earlier. Everyone’s eating messy cheeseburgers and fries from Bar Bar and joking about the band’s first tour stop: Corvallis. That’s right—the first show of the band’s epic national tour is an hour and a half from Portland, at a restaurant that may or may not have a stage, a PA system or a sound guy. The original club fell through, and no one is quite sure what to expect from its replacement.
It’s perhaps not an ideal way to begin, but then AgesandAges’ own origins are just as packed with happenstance. In 2008, as Perry’s longtime rock band Pseudosix was disintegrating, he ran into drummer Daniel Hunt—who had moved to Portland from Seattle earlier that day—on the street near his house. They talked about Fela Kuti and made loose plans to play together. Soon after, Perry’s oldest friend, Graham Mackenzie—who sang in Seattle-area choir groups as a kid—told Perry he was intent on leaving New York. Perry suggested Portland, where Mackenzie could join his band—a band that was still largely hypothetical. But one by one, puzzle pieces came together that fit into Perry’s dream of starting a joyful, choral, apathy- and drama-free rock group.
If that project sounds like wishful thinking—well, maybe it was. But after years of slugging it out with unimpressed rock audiences, Perry says he just wanted to make songs that felt good to play and made people move. AgesandAges is unapologetically groovy in ways that fell largely out of fashion somewhere in the mid-’70s. “Lyrically and thematically, our music is about isolation from the rest of the bullshit,” Perry says. Alright You Restless focuses single-mindedly on the idea of moving to the middle of nowhere and roughing it with one’s closest friends. It’s a theme that has resonated with Portlanders, perhaps because Portland itself has a reputation for being a magical rock-’n’-roll Neverland—or, as Portlandia would have it, “the place where young people go to retire”—but the band’s acceptance is still a bit of a surprise, given that it was a rejection of an apathetic Portland rock crowd that inspired the group in the first place.
Of course, AgesandAges isn’t the hippie commune it sings about on Alright You Restless. Members have day jobs, laptops, girlfriends, boyfriends and their own apartments. With most of the band’s members in their early 30s, this isn’t a naive group of kids, and even within the band there are clear roles: Somebody counts the money, somebody keeps track of the T-shirts. But Perry says much of the band bullshit he and other members have been through before doesn’t exist with AgesandAges, especially when the band is on the road. “Our personalities kind of cancel each other out—in a good way,” Perry says. “I don’t think there is ever a moment where anybody feels singled out. And we’ve all done this before in some capacity. We’re all older.”
The challenge for AgesandAges is to be both a practical, cohesive touring unit offstage and to live up to its own irony-free, gung-ho mythology onstage. “In the beginning, I was leaving it all onstage in a way where 33 shows in 35 nights would not have been possible,” Mackenzie says. “To figure out how to do the show for those who came to see it, and still do it tomorrow, it’s tricky.”
The Corvallis stop is one a lesser band might not give its full attention. When the van pulls up around 8 pm, the venue, a restaurant and bar called Cloud 9, is in the throes of a dinner rush. Well-dressed diners laugh and slowly pick at their plates. “You can’t judge a place by the way it feels at 7 or 8 o’clock,” Perry says. “Sometimes it fills up. And sometimes it doesn’t.”
By 9 pm, the dinner crowd has cleared and college-aged kids begin to show up in pairs, and when AgesandAges takes the stage, around 10:15 pm, the crowd has peaked. AgesandAges starts a little awkwardly—Mackenzie thinks there’s blood on his microphone (the sound man insists it’s just rust), and Perry’s guitar seems to detune suddenly on the second song, the live favorite “No Nostalgia.” Mackenzie takes over on vocals while Perry tunes, and at the song’s midpoint, which finds everyone singing and a barroom piano entering the mix, the band is firing on all cylinders. Someone in the crowd lets out a “Whoo!” By the next tune, AgesandAges has the 50 or so folks in attendance hanging on every riff. “It’s so great to be here in the home of the Oregon Ducks,” Mackenzie deadpans before launching into the album’s title track. The crowd bursts into laughter and applause.
After AgesandAges’ set, the band members order appetizers and watch their tourmates, Olympia’s Lake, play a chill set to a now-seated (and slightly chatty) crowd. Perry, noticeably relaxed after his band’s warm Corvallis reception, sinks into a corner booth and picks at some mac ’n’ cheese. Then he offers the most practical explanation of AgesandAges to date: “We just wanted to write songs where we wouldn’t hear people talking over us.” CASEY JARMAN.
Members: Adam Baz, Patrick Phillips.
Sounds like: A Corona- and rum-soaked dance party under overcast skies.
The Smith & Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in North Portland is buzzing. The nicest weather in weeks has brought out kayakers, cyclists, and a surprisingly large number of bird watchers, binoculars around their necks and dog-eared bird guides poking out of their back pockets.
“I come here at least once a week,” says Adam Baz, walking along the paved path that cuts through the wetlands. The drummer-keyboardist-vocalist for Brainstorm is a self-admitted “bird nerd,” who spends three months a year in the Sierra Nevadas counting birds for a nonprofit organization. “There’s so many microhabitats right next to each other, and so much…”
Baz stops short, walks back a few steps, and raises his binoculars, fixing them on the woods nearby.
“I hope you guys don’t mind me geeking out on this for a minute. I think I just saw a hermit thrush or a Swainson’s thrush, and I’ve never seen one of those before.”
Baz’s bandmate, guitarist-tuba player-vocalist Patrick Phillips, takes this in stride. “When we tour, he does this constantly,” he says, laughing. “I’ll fall asleep in the car and then wake up and we’ll be stopped. And there would be Adam on the side of the road, looking through his binoculars, and playing bird songs on his iPhone.”
Bird watchers and enthusiasts use the word “lifer” for moments like this—when they see a particular species for the first time. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, is that your lifer?’ ‘Was that one a lifer for you?’” says Baz.
Although we music geeks don’t have a word like that to describe the first time we hear a band, like most obsessive pursuits, the principle is exactly the same: We always remember.
My “lifer moment” with Brainstorm came during last year’s PDX Pop Now! Festival. Playing on the outside stage in the early evening, the duo was a captivating presence. Phillips bounced and bobbed around the stage as he sent long, African-inspired guitar lines floating into the open air. Baz switched between a furious, math-rocklike attack on his drum kit to more measured beats, taking time out to throw in a trilling melody on a small keyboard. It was a positively joyous set that, amazingly, sent the all-ages crowd into a dancing frenzy.
“That was a real turning point for us,” Phillips remembers of the PDX Pop show. “It was definitely the biggest audience we’d ever played to by that point.”
At PDX Pop, Brainstorm was only two years old. Baz and Phillips met as members of the freewheeling country-esque pop group Ohioan and Native Kin. The two bonded over their mutual love of boundary-pushing duos like Lightning Bolt as well as artists from Northwestern Africa and Southeast Asia. “The idea from the beginning was to try and seam those things together,” Baz says.
Since then, the band has been making steady strides. It released a fantastic full-length (2009’s Battling Giants) and a pair of 7-inch singles. The popular Portland-based Into the Woods video project (intothewoods.tv) filmed the group performing in its practice space in Baz’s house for part of the project’s “Feels Like Home” series—playing the ecstatic, world pop-inspired “Beast in the Sky” in the band’s quilt-padded practice space. As of late, Brainstorm has been scoring some choice opening-act spots for groups like Akron/Family and Typhoon.
As the two wander through the wetlands—with Baz pointing out different bird songs and Phillips spotting a morel mushroom poking up out of the ground—they each contemplate the future of Brainstorm.
First is how to maintain the momentum they’ve been gathering to this point and build on it. “Portugal. The Man says they’d love to tour with us,” Baz says. “But we have to jump through all the hoops to get their management to approve it.” The duo has sent out demos of its next album to 30 or so labels in hopes of scoring a deal.
Baz and Phillips are also trying to work out the future of Brainstorm’s sound, including the potential of adding a third member to the mix. “Two people onstage is an undeniable formula,” Baz says, “but we’d love to have a woman’s voice for tripartite harmonies and to try out some polyrhythm effects.”
And they’re ready to write new material, some of which may mix in Baz’s dual interests in music and birding. “We’re thinking of writing some guitar parts based on bird song,” he says, pulling up the iBird Explorer app on his iPhone. He plays a few sparrow calls that he and Phillips vocalize as if playing them on guitar. Why those bird songs in particular? Says Phillips: “Sparrows shred!” ROBERT HAM.
4. Wild Ones
Formed: 2010 (though Wild Ones played its first show this February)
Members: Danielle Sullivan, Thomas Himes, Clayton Knapp, Andy Parker, Nick Vicario.
Sounds like: The dance party at the end of the rainbow.
In 2007, the sky seemed like the limit for Portland’s Eskimo & Sons. The band was playing increasingly packed houses and locking in its sound, as demonstrated by a stellar sophomore EP. It was singer Danielle Sullivan’s voice—shockingly clear and controlled with a little-kid innocence—that first grabbed listeners, but the tight and nuanced instrumentation, combined with frontman Dhani Rosa’s brilliant songwriting, made it stick. Then, in mid-2008, with little explanation (Rosa would say he was “done with sad shit”), Eskimo & Sons called it quits.
“We were all pretty young,” keyboardist Thomas Himes says. “But it was drawn out over two years—we always wanted to keep believing we were going to come out with a record.” The band re-formed briefly as Congratulations, but its momentum was lost, and Rosa was self-critical to the point of paralysis. Rosa would eventually move to Mexico to write and record, leaving the rest of his band—close friends who kept in touch throughout the band drama—in Portland.
Eager to make music again, Himes and Sullivan—neither of whom had ever been in bands outside of Rosa’s—plotted a recording project. Himes, who dabbled in ambient music while in college, began emailing Sullivan electronically produced tracks to sing over. Slowly, something took root.
“It felt like jumping off a cliff into the unknown,” Sullivan says now. “I’ve always been terrified to write on my own. I don’t even write in a diary. I write lists—grocery lists.”
But after enough “poking and prodding” from Himes, Sullivan wrote parts that brought the songs to life. The pair decided to call on an old friend, E&S bassist Clayton Knapp, to join the band for recording sessions. Drummer Andy Parker and bassist Nick Vicario, who had toured with Eskimo & Sons with their respective bands Dirty Mittens and the Bustling Townships, would join next. It felt like a reunion, the band’s members say, but Wild Ones had just been born.
The group’s debut EP, You’re a Winner—released via CD and Internet download earlier this year—mixes crunchy electronic pop elements with lush live instrumentation and Sullivan’s crystalline, multitracked vocals. Considering its shared members, the group can’t help but remind of Eskimo & Sons, but—true to its name—Wild Ones is more playful and genre-defying.
Early live shows have shown even more potential than the recordings: Wild Ones pulls off quiet numbers and full-on dance jams alike without the help of digital backing tracks, and it’s clear to the audience just how much fun this band is having.
“We were all ready for it,” Parker says of the young group’s enthusiasm. “These are guys I’ve loved and known for years, and we were all ready for something new.” That’s true on a number of levels: Before Wild Ones came together, both Himes and Vicario had concrete plans to leave Portland. The band kept them here, and all members say they’re in it for the long haul. “We’ve been in bands for too long to never have released a full-length,” Himes says. “This time it’s going to happen.” CASEY JARMAN.
5. Kelli Schaefer
Formed: She began playing solo shows in 2007.
Members: Kelli Schaefer, Kris Doty, Ryan Lynch, Jeremiah Hayden.
Sounds like: Bucolic and breezy pop with a feral and
Even though she wasn’t in Portland when the Blazers delivered their Game 4 comeback victory over Dallas last month, Kelli Schaefer and her band didn’t miss a moment of it. “We were checking our phones for the updates constantly all the way up there,” she says, recalling the drive to Seattle. The group was making the journey north that Saturday for an in-studio session at a Seattle radio station and to play an anniversary party at the High Dive music venue.
Like everyone else, Schaefer assumed Portland’s team was assured a loss until its cinematic 11th-hour comeback, which began developing just as the band’s van rolled into town. The group quickly found a bar with a television to catch the final moments, then dashed back to the station to sound check for its set.
Whether it was due to the elated chaos of that mad scramble between locales, or her introverted nature, 26-year-old Schaefer was initially tentative on-air. In a live context, the slight, somber-faced singer often initially exudes the cautious delivery of a young artist finding her footing. But what happened next was refreshing and unexpected. In the few minutes it took her to transition from “City Morgue,” the eighth track on her debut full-length Ghost of the Beast, to “Black Dog,” she began to convey the command of a seasoned performer, her rich alto soaring with disarming confidence over the playing of bassist Kris Doty, drummer Jeremiah Hayden and guitarist Ryan Lynch. While she’s still too green to ply audiences with the articulate power of her idols, Björk and PJ Harvey, she is traveling a trajectory that could get her playing in their league someday, a far cry from her quieter, acoustic origins.
“It took me a while to get into music,” she says. As we discuss her transition from her early days as a coffeehouse-acoustic folkie to the electrified, more engaging performer who has grabbed the attention of local audiences, she describes the experience of watching Jenny Lewis play at the Aladdin Theater in 2006. “That was the first time I realized that I didn’t have to play acoustic guitar and do cutesy, folky stuff—not that she was a [loud] rock star or anything, but that was what got me thinking about doing things differently.” The PJ Harvey influence came shortly thereafter, as did Schaefer’s awareness that experimentation and genre-surfing were acceptable approaches to making music.
“I have a really short attention span, and I want to be able to do whatever I’m feeling at the moment…listening to [Harvey’s] records, it really doesn’t matter—her voice is the constant thing,” she says. “I want to experiment even more with vocals [on the next record] and learn more about producing myself.... I want to be able to take that leadership role in the future.” Such self-possession is a natural next step for Schaefer—one that her heroines would no doubt approve of. HANNAH LEVIN.
6. Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Members: Ruban Nielson, Jacob Portrait, Julian Erhlich.
Sounds like: A young Carlos Santana shredding along to funky, battered soul 45s.
For some musicians, it would be too much too soon. It has been less than a year since Ruban Nielson anonymously posted a single home-recorded track, “Ffunny Ffriends,” on the Internet under the pseudonym Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Now he has a deal with a great label, widespread blog hype and a band that tours with some of the hottest acts in indie rock. In fact, Nielson—who has a 2-year-old son named Moebius and a 6-month-old daughter, Iris Honeybee—will spend nine months of 2011 on the road.
Of course, Ruban Nielson has been here before. Just not in America.
“We were everything that was wrong with music for a while,” Nielson says of the success of his punk band, the Mint Chicks, in their native New Zealand. “Then all of a sudden it just flipped, and we became accepted as the resident weirdos or whatever.” By 2007, the Chicks were the hottest band in the small country, winning five awards (including best album, best video and best group) at New Zealand’s equivalent of the Grammys. In the band’s red-carpet interview, Ruban Nielson announced that the band was leaving for America. “It’s not about making it big,” he told the cameras. “Making it big is...who cares?”
“We kind of became a little institution,” he says now. And for a punk band, that kind of success can be suffocating. “We just needed to get out.” For Nielson and his brother Kody—both U.S. citizens thanks to their Hawaiian-born mother—and drummer Paul Roper, that meant re-establishing the Mint Chicks in Portland. The Chicks would last about two years here before Ruban and Kody’s complicated relationship hit a wall. “I felt like nobody else was going to pull the plug, so I pulled the plug myself,” Ruban says. “I just kind of wanted my brother back.”
Kody went back to New Zealand, where he’s currently dating and collaborating with notable NZ pop star Bic Runga. (Ruban, sipping tea in the Milwaukie yurt he rents from a friend, shows me a newspaper article—it’s the smiling couple gracing the cover of New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times, which calls them, “respectively, the most critically and commercially successful New Zealand artists of the last 15 years.”) But Ruban, in love with Portland and enjoying his life out of the public eye, stayed behind.
“I just realized that I didn’t have to make music in Portland,” he says. “You could just live here and that would be cool enough—just to live here and do anything.”
Nielson thought he’d give up on music altogether, taking an internship at local ad/design firm Kamp Grizzly and spending time with his growing family. But music crawled its way back into his life. For fun, Nielson bought some lo-fi analog tape recorders and began work on what he thought would be a psych-pop record.
The self-titled disc, which will see release June 21 on the Fat Possum imprint (home of late bluesman RL Burnside and Band of Horses, among others), is really an amalgamation of hip-hop, Motown-era soul and psychedelic guitar-rock. “I got into Wu-Tang before I got into the Beatles,” Nielson says of his genre-fucking analog aesthetic. “I really think those bands have a lot in common.”
His live band, featuring bassist Jacob Portrait (who mixed the Mint Chicks’ excellent 2009 record Screens) and 19-year-old Portland drummer Julian Erhlich, made its debut Feb. 15 at Doug Fir with super-hyped labelmates Smith Westerns. Nielson wore a cape. UMO has been on the road, mostly playing to packed houses as a support act, ever since. With each show, Nielson says, the band gets a little more comfortable. It’s even been known to “jam.”
“For punks who actually grew up in [the punk] era, there’s a rulebook—and guitar solos are out of the rulebook,” he says. Still, Nielson—who spends his rare free time at home with his wife (whom he lovingly calls a “hippie”) and children, with chickens and dogs roaming the yard—insists he hasn’t forsaken his punk roots. “I used to use those people that I looked up to as a gauge for what was good. Now I feel like freaking them out is the thing that lets me know I’m on the right track.” CASEY JARMAN.
Members: Carolyn Berk, Kerby Ferris, Emily Kingan.
Sounds like: Kate Bush “Running Up That Hill” to have a Black Celebration with Sade and Pema Chodron.
With her head canted sideways, her eyes cast down, her arms engaged in some affair with the air—a Michael Stipe wave-chop, say, or a possessed preacher’s hortatory high-five to the sky—Lovers frontwoman Carolyn Berk sings as if struck anew by whatever bliss or brokenness first inspired her lyrics. It’s been a few years since Berk recruited programmer Kerby Ferris and percussionist Emily Kingan to assist in transforming Lovers’ guitar-based dolor into the vespertine electro-pop of 2010’s crushing Dark Light, and even though the band is, in Berk’s words, “a three-part collaboration,” she appears to be utterly alone up there, captivated by the sound surrounding her.
Berk’s movements are awesome theater, as they convey with corporeality the skein of feelings aroused by Lovers’ recent beat-heavy and synth-laden recordings, which by pop’s ineffable magic arrive at consoling vistas of cosmic balance by first burrowing deep down into the small and bittersweet things that happen in dark rooms and between sheets. What Berk might be doing up there in that shifting stage light, then, is getting to that place where the best love songs live, that zone between bodies and minds that explodes into something like grace.
“I like change,” Berk says, “progress of thought, progress of experience. So then you have to relearn the idea of the internal locus of control, otherwise you’ll just lose focus. I don’t want to live an unfocused life.” She is referring to her band’s future, but she might as well be describing Dark Light, or the 40 minutes Lovers spends attempting to turn those songs into breathing things in a room full of people: process, progress, learning, relearning, losing focus, finding focus, a whole mess of conflicting emotions going down at once, head canted sideways, eyes cast down. CHRIS STAMM.
8/9/10. Tied at 32 Points Each
Members: Josh Spacek, Michael Slavin, Richard Bennett.
Sounds like: A sock hop reverse-engineered by Alpha Centauri hipsters.
It seems less than fair that every description of Monarques, particularly any mention of the band’s hotly anticipated full-length debut—essentially complete and awaiting autumn release as unspecified powers that be circle expectantly—must belabor the immaculate confection of that thing they do. But obsessive critical focus upon the trio’s precision and restraint and bespoke instrumentation rather misses the point.
“There’s not a strict regimen about authenticity. Because of the bulk of the music that we listen to, that period ends up being our reference point—but we just try to make the songs as good as we can,” says frontman Josh Spacek, former commander of rather more esoteric local act Oh Captain, My Captain. “Me, Richard, Michael—we love playing music. We recorded all the instrumental tracks live. Everything you’ll hear on the new album, besides some overdubbed vocals and a little bit of guitar, is a band playing in a room together. It’s the coolest fucking thing. Five dudes in a room playing together. We’re having an awesome time.”
AM harmonies skitter and sway, casually note-perfect and thrilling because the conjoined bandmates somehow transcend kitsch or perspective, luxuriating in the bliss of immediacy. For all the intricacies of the band’s songcraft (a succession of shoulda-been singles with Motown’s surgical swagger and British Invasion effervescent cheek) or production (the specter of, well, Spector hovering above every reverb-soaked guitar stab), the Monarques are goddamn fun.
“It’s honest pop rock,” insists Michael Slavin, newly minted lead guitarist. And there’s a peculiar innocence to yesterday’s bubblegum so vividly relished, plucking rapture from a handful of Gretsch. JAY HORTON.
Members: Garth Steel Klippert, Charlie Hester, Patrick Finn, Todd Roper, Scott DeMay.
Sounds like: A cage match between Robbie Robertson, Jim James, Brian Wilson and Neil Young in which no winner is declared and all parties involved deny using anabolic steroids.
“I’ll be damned if somebody’s going to tell me to stand up when I want to sit down,” Old Light mastermind Garth Steel Klippert told me in an interview last year. “And if I want to play loud, I’m going to play loud.”
At that point, Klippert and company were just a blip on the radar, formed after the frontman perked ears by playing home recordings for his fares while working as a cabbie. Following the release of last year’s stellar debut, The Dirty Future, Old Light is a formidable entity in a folk-rock scene—with an emphasis on rock. Combining the old-school Americana of a stripped-down the Band with My Morning Jacket’s propensity to take a melodic jam into the mesosphere, Old Light has established a sound of its own: one that kicks back to chilled-out melodies laced with intense Beach Boys harmonies; one that gets Crazy Horse as fuck on swamp-rock anthems and throws down on quick improvised interludes.
All along, the band emphasizes that Americana isn’t always rooted in plucky laments and tongue-in-cheek imitation—it can also be dirty and refreshing: Americana can embrace a musical manifest destiny, warts and all, that defies easy classification. Old Light now stands tall in a timeless, devil-may-cry category all its own—one that sits down to play loud at the same time. AP KRYZA.
Purple & Green
Members: Justin “J Green” Johnson, Adam Forkner.
Sounds like: Futuristic, funked-up, sex&B from the remake of The Fifth Element; The-Dream recording an album for Portland’s punky Gnar Tapes label.
Before Purple & Green ever played a show, the local R&B group had Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox’s stamp of approval. Cox, a longtime friend and collaborator of Purple & Green’s Adam Forkner, was one of the first people to witness Forkner’s new project. “I loved his advice,” Purple & Green singer Justin “J Green” Johnnson says. “He was like, ‘I don’t even want you to be good—try to be nasty.’”
Watching Purple & Green onstage, it’s clear Johnson took those words to heart. Dressed in light green from head to toe (torn shirt, headband and matching scarf) like a flamboyant Kermit the Frog, J Green is strutting around Mississippi Studios, teaching a mostly white Portland audience how to really get down. “I might have to take you to church on this one!” he shrieks, launching into the beginning of “Human Nature,” one of his group’s bouncy, synth-laced bangers. “We’re getting all Dreamgirls up in here!”
In reality, Purple & Green’s story is more DIY than Hollywood. Johnson met producer-synth soloist Forkner last year when Forkner was performing with the mobile party van of Rob Walmart outside of Valentine’s. After some initial trepidation, Johnson—who has played Portland with a few acoustic and soul acts over the years—stepped up to the mic and improvised for 20 minutes, singing over a jerkin’ beat while Forkner looked on in amazement. Johnson quickly fled the scene, but Forkner tracked him down and the duo quickly began working on a style of funky, boisterous R&B that strays from his experimental past.
“Psychedelic music used to be sexy, but somewhere that element got lost,” Forkner says. “There’s a lack of funk in the world, and we’re trying to bring that back.” MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
Who’s got next?
Best New Band Poll 2011, finalists numbers 11 through 25.
12/13 (tie). Radiation City
12/13 (tie). The Reservations
14. Golden Retriever
15. The Angry Orts
16. Pancake Breakfast
17. Wild Flag
18. Guantanamo Baywatch
19-23 (tie). Mean Jeans
19-23 (tie). Morning Teleportation
19-23 (tie). Soft Metals
19-23 (tie). TxE
19-23 (tie). Denver
25. Quiet Life
HEAR IT: And And And, Brainstorm and Wild Ones play the Eighth Annual Best New Band Showcase on Friday, May 6, at Mississippi Studios. 9 pm. Free. 21+.