There are intangibles in Radiation City's debut record, The Hands That Take You: Ghosts in the machine that cast dark shadows and shoot warm jetstreams across tracks like the skittering, electro-soulful "The Color of Industry" and the Doors-esque brain-melter "Phantom Lady." There's something buzzing, deep in the mix, that makes this Portland quartet the most exciting young band in the pop scene. It sounds tacky, but that unidentifiable element—a God particle of pop, if you will—is love.
There was a spark of it when Radiation City's Cameron Spies and Lizzy Ellison first met in November 2009. "Our mutual friend introduced us and she was like, 'You guys are both musicians, you should hang out,'" Spies says, impersonating the friend with a devious accent. Spies, talking from behind the wheel of Radiation City's van near Davis, Calif., sounds like he wasn't ready to start a new band at the time—let alone start a relationship. "I had just broken up with my girlfriend and (Ellison) had just broken up with her boyfriend—it was kind of like we were being set up."
"Whenever I used to meet guys that I knew were musicians, I would get worried that they'd play me their music and it would suck," Ellison says. "But I heard his music and was overjoyed.... We just kind of fell in love immediately."
Love, though, was a logistical problem. Ellison had just moved back to Portland after six years in Chicago, but Spies was only on vacation, visiting family for Thanksgiving after relocating to San Francisco, where he was active in the music scene. "I pestered him for about eight months to move back to Portland and he was hesitant, because he had grown up here and didn't want to move back immediately,â Ellison says.
You can hear Spies' hesitation fading on Radiation City's "Park," a song he wrote while living in the Bay Area and contemplating a move back home. "You might still feel a thing after all this/ Chances are looking good," a shaky-voiced Spies reassures himself over guitar strums as the song opens. He sounds frozen on the edge of a high-dive. When the band joins him shortly thereafter—crashing together like a more confessional version of the Shins on a shoestring budget—it's sonic confirmation that Spies has made the right choice.
It all worked out in the real world, too. Before long, Spies and Ellison were living Portland's variation on the American Dream: The couple found themselves sharing their two bands—Spesus Christ and Soap Collectors; similarly named yet independent of one another, a suspicious coincidence that Ellison insists is just one of many—while running a well-regarded all-cassette label called Apes Tapes.
Spesus Christ and Soap Collectors were unusually polished Portland bands strewn with electronic elements—the former allowing for sharp edges; the latter softened by Ellison's glowing self-harmonies—but as the couple began collecting misfit material for their unnamed new group, it started shaping up as something moodier and more palatable than either previous group. Radiation City's split cassette with Your Canvas, released by Apes Tapes last August, presented a project that seemed fully mature and thrilling before it even played a show.
This year has been a bit of a whirlwind. Radiation City grew from duo to trio in early 2011 with the addition of drummer Randy Bemrose, and later added Matt Rafferty on bass to complete the band's current incarnation as a quartet. It recorded five new tracks and compiled a stellar full-length in February, then announced a deal with respected Portland record label Tender Loving Empire (Typhoon, And And And, Y La Bamba) in June. The debut album will be re-released on TLE at this Saturday's Doug Fir show.
Radiation City, wrapping up a five-week tour that found it dodging tropical storms and playing alongside buzz band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. for a stretch, has taken its growth spurts and increasingly high profile in stride. The live show is shockingly good, and the band is already working on new material—with all four members contributing songwriting and vocals—that it plans to release next spring. And it is indeed love, Ellison confirms, that makes this band so good.
"We love each other so much, and that is really the glue between us," she says. "I feel like I hear a lot of people say that, but it's absolutely true. It's kind of like dating three guys."
SEE IT: Radiation City plays Doug Fir on Saturday, Sept. 24, with Blouse and Aan. 9 pm. $8. 21+.