[SHINY INDIE POWER POP] "It feels like we've been doing this forever," says Brandon Johnson, lead vocalist for indie-pop quartet Priory. The statement is hard to believe because Priory, having formed in 2009, plays live shows like it's still on a honeymoon with the mere idea of being a band.
The Portland quartet—consisting of Johnson, Kyle Dieker, Greg Harpel and Joe Mengis (a new addition not yet pictured in the band's press photos)—plays a comfortably overstuffed brand of indie pop characterized by gleefully enjambed hooks and sparkling, upper-register harmonies. Though veterans of the Northwest music scene (Johnson is a well-regarded session bassist, and Dieker has worked with independent record labels), the group's passion for its music can almost be described as "teenaged." Priory's debut record features at least twice as many hooks as there are tracks, and its live shows are studies in guitar-bound calisthenics. Prior to their first tour, members of the band all bought memberships to 24-Hour Fitness so they could stay healthy while on the road.
"There came a point where we were all thinking, 'Hey, this is actually happening. How are we gonna get out of our jobs?'" says Johnson. "And we had made up our minds…we were gonna go out, get into a bus and travel around and push ourselves like crazy and find out what it actually takes to do this, because we all love it."
Taking to the road is exactly what the group did, touring across the West Coast and building an ever-greater stable of admirers.
For a band with what might be described as a modest hometown profile, Priory has managed to gain entry to a surprising number of Portland's most exclusive musical clubs. The quartet is signed to Expunged Records, the boutique home of such acts as Blind Pilot and Sexton Blake. It has played most of Portland's A-list venues, been featured on the radio show Live Wire!, and cut a debut record whose advance buzz is already evoking calls for songs to soundtrack next summer's blockbuster films.
It's easy to see how Priory's self-titled LP would foment such interest. The record shows a remarkable talent for hooks, mixed with an enthusiasm that suggests a group merely 20 shows into its career, rather than 200. The group adds meat to the bones of Johnson's earnest songwriting by means of bass guitar, keyboard and glockenspiel, venturing into contorted song structures that happily exploit its talent for daisy-chaining compelling melodies. There is a ghost of Beulah's flourishing pop in Priory's arrangements, but wit is subbed out here for earnestness.
On "Kings of Troy," Johnson describes sexual archery in the grand terms of armies and "the one who's always been here by my side." Clichés pop up occasionally: A "heart of stone" and "the end of time" both populate the liner notes for "Lady of Late"—but one gets the feeling these guys mean every word of it.
"We love these simplistic, almost nursery rhyme melodies," says Johnson. "Melodies that are automatically identifiable, that bring you back to youth or innocence or childhood. You mix that with some subject matter that's a little bit dark, it creates this kind of melancholy, surreal landscape, and I think that that's something throughout the album that we try to convey.â
Like so many aspects of Priory's ongoing enterprises, it's a balance that the group has been a quick study at achieving.
SEE IT: Priory releases its self-titled debut Friday, June 17, at Mississippi Studios. 9 pm. $8 advance, $10 day of show. 21+.