Close your eyes and think of a typical Portland band. You're imagining a group of sensitive lumberjacks playing sad-sack folk tunes on old-timey instruments, aren't you?
Ask those truly in the know—club owners, label heads, journalists, musicians, promoters, publicists, and plain old record junkies—to do the same, and they'll tell you it's an impossible exercise. That's because there is no such thing as a "typical Portland band."
Our annual Best New Band poll proves it every year. Since 2004, we've surveyed hundreds of local music aficionados, asking for their favorite breakout artists of the previous 12 months. Each year, the results confirm that our city's internationally celebrated music scene cannot be narrowed into a single sound or style.
Just look at the issue in front of you. This year's top 10, culled from more than 150 voters, features backward-gazing blue-eyed soulsters on one end and wickedly sarcastic metalheads on the other. In between, there are garage-rock bands that write ace pop songs and pop bands rocking enough to shake the siding off the average garage. There are psychedelic bands with radically different interpretations of the term "psychedelic." There's a band driven by crystal keyboards and silky grooves, another by funk-punk rhythms and ecstatic spirituality. There's even a futuristic electro-R&B diva. And there's nary a banjo or washboard among them.
As usual, we remind you that everything about Best New Band—including the definitions of the words "best," "new" and "band"—is subjective. We'll also save you the keystrokes this year and admit that, yes, we're a bunch of hipsters foisting our hipster tastes upon you. If you don't agree with this list, well, that's good. Hopefully, it'll inspire you to get out to some shows and come up with your own. Then the next time someone asks you what a "typical" Portland band sounds like, you'll know it's a trick question.
—Matthew Singer, Willamette Week Music Editor
9/10. (tie) Gaytheist
- 31 points
- Formed: 2011.
- Sounds like: Clowns who got kicked out of the circus for being too radical, then banded together and started destroying eardrums.
In 2010, Gaytheist singer-guitarist Jason Rivera thought he might quit music forever.
"I had a moment where I couldn't do music anymore," he says. "So I tried to write the world's worst science-fiction novel." Of the four works he produced during his yearlong hiatus, one included the "new and improved Bible," in which "an astronaut befriends a six-armed grizzly and then finds out heâs Jesus.â
When he eventually found his way back to playing music again, forming Gaytheist with bassist Tim Hoff and Nick Parks in 2011, Rivera brought that absurd aesthetic with him. Metal at its core but bleeding into post-hardcore and punk, the band's sonic onslaught is spiked with lyrics that mix political statements with biting sarcasm.
Last year's Stealth Beats, the group's third album, was its most refined yet. Pummeled immediately with opener "Stampede of Savings," taken on a wild tour of an attorney's nightmare in "Post-Apocalyptic Lawsuit" and indicted by the explosive and catchy closer "Condemn the Condemners," listeners are advised to wear both earplugs and a jock strap. The follow-up, Hold Me…but Not So Tight, comes out May 21 on Seattle's Good to Die Records.
As heavy as the band's instrumental attack is, with his uniform of suspenders, bow tie and neatly trimmed mustache—not to mention a vocal style inspired by Jarred Warren of Karp and Big Business—Rivera hardly looks or sounds like your average metal dude. And in a cred-obsessed genre, that can lead to some misperceptions. To set the record, um, straight, I asked Rivera how he'd like to be seen.
"I didn't come out of the closet—I power-slid out on my knees with my dick in one hand and a guitar in the other," he says. "I want to be the gay uncle of the music industry.â MITCH LILLIE.
9/10. (tie) Magic Mouth
- 31 POINTS
- Formed: 2011.
- Sounds like: The righteously roof-raising house band in the B-52sâ Love Shack.
The past year has been good to Magic Mouth. During those 12 months, the soul, funk, gospel, disco, rock, etc. quartet was invited on a long tour with local heroes the Gossip, had its name dropped in interviews multiple times by Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker as her favorite local band and snapped up big shows in Seattle and San Francisco. As clichéd as it may sound, the members of Magic Mouth are taking all the accolades and opportunities with incredible humility—even the news that they've been selected as one of Portland's Best New Bands.
"When we play a show, we kind of just recognize our friends' presence," says singer-guitarist Peter Condra, surrounded by his bandmates and the clatter of midafternoon pinball players at My Father's Place. "It still has the sensation of being a friend-only thing. Then people come out of left field with opportunities like this and it's, like, 'Oh, people outside of ourselves are noticing and we're getting attention.'"
For all of the band's modesty, the plain fact is that Magic Mouth is hard to ignore, especially when Condra, singer Stephfon Bartee, bassist Brendan Scott and drummer Ana Briseño are onstage, locked into a tightly wound groove. Emboldened by their natural chemistry and the thrill of playing live, all four sweat and shake and shout as one. Listeners incapable of getting gleefully caught up in the group's maelstrom of "Funky Drummer"-esque breakdowns and sky-scraping weepers were born with ice water in their veins.
Now it seems that everyone wants to bottle that energy in some form or other. A live video of the band playing at Mississippi Studios is being released soon. Banana Stand Media wants to bring the four down to its basement for a session. For Magic Mouth, though, the focus is on recording another quartet of tracks as a follow-up to its self-titled 2012 EP.
"The four songs represent the four corners of our sound," Condra says. "One is a raw, stripped-down rockabilly song. One is a percussion-heavy Afro-funk jam. One is a well-rounded disco-pop tune. And one is an R&B ballad." In other words, it's a surefire recipe to propel Magic Mouth even further into the pop stratosphere. ROBERT HAM.
7/8. (tie) Natasha Kmeto
- 34 POINTS
- FORMED: Started performing solo in 2010.
- SOUNDS LIKE: A superstar R&B diva back from the future.
's fondest childhood memories is of the day her father brought home the family's first subwoofer. "I literally just sat next to it and played everything with the lowest bass," the 30-year-old singer-producer says, peering out at Northeast Broadway from her seat at
. It was a formative moment: As a teenager, Kmeto's fixation with pure sound blossomed into a love of electronic music, which now underscores her futuristic brand of R&B. Unlike a lot of her laptop-leering peers, though, Kmeto doesn't want listeners just to feel her music—she wants them to
it, too. "Not to say I don't geek out on tones still," she says, "but I feel like I'm coming more from, 'Does this feel like what I'm trying to convey?'"
In other words, Kmeto is a beat maker who thinks like a songwriter. On the two EPs she's released through Portland-based label Dropping Gems, The Ache and Dirty Mind Melt, the Sacramento, Calif., native humanizes the low-rumbling bass, glitchy rhythms and moody, digitized textures of modern electronic music by cutting it with the emotional undercurrents of hip-hop and soul. It's an aesthetic that's allowed her to cross over in a city still a bit leery of music made on machines. Her live performances have certainly helped, too. Singing from behind a computer, mixer and drum machine, Kmeto defies the image of the disengaged producer hunched over a laptop. Though she admits preferring to work by herself, it's not just about control: It's a feminist statement.
"I want to present the music for what it is, which is all me," she says. "A lot of people have come up to me and asked, 'Who makes your beats?' They wouldnât ask a man that.â
Kmeto's upcoming full-length debut, Crisis, is arriving on the heels of a stressful year, the details of which she declines to discuss. She'll say only that she was "plugged into a way of life I didn't agree with." She hints that unplugging from that lifestyle was painful but cathartic, and that she's poured it all into the album—both in her words and her sounds.
"Through the process of getting more honest with myself, my music has become more honest," she says. "Not to say it's been dishonest before, but I was hiding more, because I was hiding from myself." MATTHEW SINGER.
7/8. (tie) Genders
- 34 POINTS
- Formed: 2012.
- Sounds like: Sipping a beer through sandy teeth after a partly cloudy afternoon at the beach.
Midway through a conversation among the members of Genders, guitarist Stephen Leisy leans over the table to ask drummer Katherine Paul if she's gotten her tattoo yet. She says no, but she's planning to soon. The four bandmates recently decided to get matching ink upon returning home from a brief West Coast tour. Leisy, singer-guitarist Maggie Morris and bassist Matthew Hall all pull back various parts of their shirts to reveal their new body art: a wolf similar to the one on the cover of the group's newly released 7-inch.
It's a symbol of camaraderie among musicians who, in the past, have had trouble keeping bands together. Unlike Youth—Morris, Leisy and Hall's previous outfit, which broke up just after placing fifth in last year's Best New Band poll—Genders shows promising signs of longevity. Along with carrying equal creative weight in the songwriting, the members continually toss around jokes, speak to each other in weird voices, and talk often about sex.
Musically, this year has been off to a promising start. During its first-ever tour in March, the band opened for legendary indie-rockers Built to Spill at the Treefort Music Festival in Boise. The night of the performance, Morris twice wept out of excitement and subsequently gave herself whiplash during a rowdy, late-night set by Portland's Wooden Indian Burial Ground. "I never wanted that day to end," she says.
Steadily attracting buzz for its live shows and gaining momentum as a fully formed band, the quartet is currently recording its first full-length album. Between loosely flowing electric-guitar riffs and Morris' sweetly candid vocals, Genders flirts with a washy surf-rock sound. On newer songs, such as "Oakland," however, the music takes a grittier and more versatile form via darker melodies, random bursts of energy and the band members' unshakable chemistry.
"All of us have been in other bands that just haven't worked out," Hall says. "[Genders is] the first band that has really worked." EMILEE BOOHER.
- 39 POINTS
- Formed: 2011.
- Sounds like: Hot Chip in a lounge setting, with a hint of Ween-like absurdity.
Music videos speak the truth. Take Portland glam-pop sextet Minden's "Gold Standard" video. It incorporates more spandex and synchronized movements than a swim meet. The slight artificiality, tightly knit structures and lustful looks cast across the faces of the band members are as much an illustration of the band's sparkling sound as they are ingredients of the video itself.
Minden moved to Portland from Kansas City, Mo., last June, with little in its custody beyond a near-complete and outstanding LP in Exotic Cakes. Landing in a house on Northeast Killingsworth Street dubbed Minden Manor, frontman Casey Burge and company settled in fast. Weekly barbecues and home rehearsals led to shows at clubs like Holocene, Doug Fir and Mississippi Studios, and at Rontoms' Sunday Sessions. By October, Minden was turning ears at studio and music-scene launch pad the Banana Stand. It wasn't long before a four-song EP and a shooting session with local music media site Into the Woods were in the works. Now the only thing Burge misses from his hometown is the barbecue sauce.
âThere are a lot of really creative people in Portland,â he says. âIt feels like home.â
Keyboard-centric on the verge of smooth-jazz territory, Minden's sound is a polished glass stiletto, clean and towering. Burge's near-whispered vocals wind in and around crystalline keys and round melodies. And while Minden occasionally strays down more experimental paths, it always boomerangs back to its sugarcoated pop core.
Whatever Burge is doing at Minden Manor is working. "I hate to use the word 'slave driver,' but I'm pretty controlling," he says, "almost to a fault sometimes." As a conductor, though, Burge has Minden in fine form—deserving of spandex. MARK STOCK.
5. The We Shared Milk
- 42 POINTS
- Formed: 2010.
- Sounds like: A hazy tromp through poppy, psychedelic fields of mixed emotions.
Making a good first impression is not a high priority for the We Shared Milk. The photograph at the top of the group's Facebook page is not a well-manicured press shot. Instead, it features a candid image of frontman Boone Howard on the street, spewing a stream of cherry-red liquid out of his mouth and onto the pavement.
"The backstage food at Treefort Fest in Boise had borscht and carrot smoothies," Howard explains. "We thought it would be funny to puke bright colors for a promo."
It's telling of a band that refers to its music as "moron rock." Not to say the quartet—three parts Alaskan, one part native Oregonian—dumbs down its woozy brand of psych pop. It just prefers to keep things simple. On Lame Sunset, the band's second album in less than seven months, the group took a more direct approach with its songwriting than last year's History of Voyager and Legend Tripping.
"I focused on not thinking about it," Howard says. "I tried to be relatable and simple in the lyrics—something different than I usually do, which is stuff that sounds nice together but doesn't necessarily convey what I'm talking about. It's a little more blunt."
The album's 10 songs don't punch the listener in the gut but casually flow, interweaving remnants of the group's previous work with a hazy shade of melancholia. Howard's woolly, distorted guitar glints and glides above drummer Eric Ambrosius and bassist Travis Leipzig's syncopated rhythms, while multi-instrumentalist Henry Gibson lays down a mix of keyboards that anchors the band's dazed crawl.
For a band that self-releases its albums, the We Shared Milk is big on collaboration: History of Voyager featured production from 10 different Portland artists, and it recently recorded a collaborative single and went on tour with its friends in And And And, the Best New Band of 2010.
"I think we vibe with those guys really well," mutters Howard. "I guess we're all just a bunch of party boys." As the streets of Boise are already well aware. BRANDON WIDDER.
4. Wooden Indian Burial Ground
- 48 POINTS
- Formed: 2012.
- Sounds like: 3:15 through 4:15 of âIron Manâ by Black Sabbath by the Cardigans by Built to Spill.
There are heavier, darker, jammier bands than Wooden Indian Burial Ground—but not heavier, darker, jammier bands that fit into a compact hatchback.
As the three-man outfit sips $1 tall boys inside B Side on East Burnside Street on a recent Saturday afternoon, the group's tour vehicle sits outside. It's a pragmatic ride for a band that tours a lot and doesn't like day jobs: an ecologically responsible 2005 Ford Focus, outfitted with a Thule roof rack. Inside, there's enough room for singer-guitarist Justin Fowler, drummer Dan Galucki and bassist Paul Seely to sit comfortably on cross-country tours to Galucki's native Maine, so long as the band limits itself to tiny but very loud amps and a stripped-down drum kit packed like a nesting doll.
The cheerful blue Focus couldn't be more at odds with the dark imagery from the band's self-titled record, a low-fi mix of thumping drums, creepy Zombies organ sounds and shredding psychedelic guitar solos. To me, it sounds like Memphis garage legends '68 Comeback covering Billy Breathes. This has occurred to others. "We're just like the new era of Phish or something," Fowler says. "I think we've had people yell 'Grateful Dead!' at us three times in the last six weeks.â
That's not entirely intended. "I grew up on Black Sabbath and Billy Childish. Those are my two main influences from my teens," Fowler says. "I want to be a creepy pop band. When we get out of Portland people dance their asses off and mosh and stuff, which is really nice. So I want to keep that thumping, poppy sensibility of a three-chord song but also be creepy and heavy, too."
The Wooden Indians mostly do what they set out to—especially on the creepiness front. The band successfully channels dark vibes into tracks like "Crows" and "A Long Way From Cerrillos," especially when they're facing each other onstage, jamming out, as at a recent Doug Fir set. They sound like guys who live in a tony, unheated shack or drive a night cab—which they, in fact, do. Fowler drives a cab ("I pick up some pretty big douchebags. I get a lot of blacked-out businessmen that I think I'm a coke dealer"), while Galucki lives in a 7-by-7-foot shack in the backyard of a Northeast Portland house ("there's no insulation, so if it's 20 degree outside, itâs 20 degrees in the shackâ).
And then there are the band's show posters, which can be a little disturbing. A recent flier featuring images cribbed from a '70s Spanish porn flick depicted a woman spreading her buttocks, a naked man straddling a chair and another gentleman masturbating his half-erect penis. The photos were arranged around a hammer on a paint-splattered table. In the margins, Fowler wrote the names of the bands playing the show. That one even creeped out his mom.
"I didn't really change my Facebook settings and just posted it on there, so it went to my mom and my cousins," Fowler says. "I got a call from my mom, like, two days later, like, 'What are you posting here?' She was just so taken aback. The old porno photos were one thing, but really, the hammer sealed it together. To be honest, I was pretty drunk when I posted it. She had a point." MARTIN CIZMAR.
3. Sun Angle
- 50.83 POINTS
- Formed: 2011.
- Sounds like: The Falklands War, fought with knives and clubsâthat is to say, with pulverizing Latin rhythms and sharp, stabbing guitars.
"A second of silence is like a millennium to me," says Charlie Salas-Humara.
In his band Sun Angle, for which Salas-Humara sings and plays guitar, he's got little to worry about: A second of silence is not just a rarity, it's damn near an impossibility. The band's live shows are a full-frontal assault, as much rock slide as rock music.
Drummer Papi Fimbres plays nearly untrackable polyrhythms that mock all notion of offbeat and downbeat. Like latter-day Coltrane, he often seems to want to play all rhythm—all sound—at once. Except Coltrane had to hire three drummers to get the same effect. Here, it's just Papi, blazing cumbia rhythms at the breakneck tempos of punk. Meanwhile, Salas-Humara—who counts punk, krautrock and washed-out psychedelia like that of Pärson Sound as influences—lacquers layers of delay-pedaled, psych-prog guitar over the top of Fimbres' wild tom patterns and damped cymbal work, or slashes through the fray with syncopated riffs sometimes reminiscent of the art-damaged dance punk of Les Savy Fav. It's an experiment in chaos and control, the control being Marius Libman's fast, circular basslines. Without him, the whole damn production might just blow away.
"When I was in high school and just getting into bass," Libman says, "I was really into Miles Davis' fusion-era stuff. The bass is like the anchor. That's where I'm coming from with this band."
"Marius is the drums," Salas-Humara adds. Fimbres, on the other hand, is Keith Moon, which is a little bit different from being the drummer.
The band's live shows often take on the character of a dare to the audience: Can you keep up? The songs' disparate elements merge and spin away from each other, and sometimes there's too much going on to process.
"It's exhausting, these endings," Libman says. "Papi's going nuts. He's sweating so bad."
"The end of the song," Salas-Humara says, "is [when] Papi can't play anymore."
Aside from the goofily abstract stage banter between Salas-Humara and Fimbres, the effect is a bit like the visceral overload of a Lightning Bolt show. But this year, they managed to do something that has eluded that band: They captured their energy on record in a way that actually makes sense. Menomena's Danny Seim spent a month producing Sun Angle's debut full-length, Diamond Junk, which was recorded using Pro Tools and a laptop, half in a home studio and half in a mountain cabin in Zigzag, Ore.
"Our friends will tell us about recording in a studio," says Salas-Humara, "and we'll be like, 'Yeah, that'd be awesome to spend $10,000.' I can't even imagine that. We spent $400 on the cabin and $200 on booze, and that was it."
From its very rough initial recordings, Seim worked Diamond Junk into a singular cohesion. It's one the best damn rock albums I expect to hear this year, one that harks back to the harsh intensities of 1978-era New York City no wave and post-punk. The band will be touring for the first time after the album drops, a brief five-date tour "up north" and in California with And And And. But they don't know if anybody will get what they're doing.
"We don't really have a niche," says Salas-Humara of the band's psych-punk assault. "We try to be the best of both worlds. But it just comes out weird." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
2. The Woolen Men
- 52 POINTS
- Formed: 2008.
- Sounds like: A three-headed monster in your creaky old basement thatâs still deciding whether to sing for you or eat your children.
The Woolen Men didn't plan on sounding like the Woolen Men.
When Lincoln High School classmates Raf Spielman and Lawton Browning met up after college to play music together, their rehearsals resembled a songwriting club more than band practice. The two had disparate styles: Lawton's songs offered playful nods to classic rock and New Wave influences; Spielman's were more kinetic and abstract, a slightly nihilistic take on early Northwest garage rock and psychedelia. But mutual respect and common musical tastes, including Wire and Guided by Voices, were enough to keep the pair together.
When they pulled Spielman's Golden Hours bandmate Alex Geddes into the mix, he brought his own songs to the table. Geddes' tunes split the difference between Browning's bouncy hooks and Spielman's driving punk, and his more direct lyrics imbued the project with a previously absent sweetness. The songwriting club got bigger, but the rules didn't change. Instead of forcing themselves to find a common aesthetic or settle on a single frontman, the Woolen Men did what came most naturally to them: They shuffled instruments and singers and played every show they could get.
"We played a lot of terrible shows," Browning says with a laugh. "I had this idea that the more that we played shows, the better it would get. I don't know if that was actually true."
Turns out, the Woolen Men did get better through the sheer volume of their live gigs, but there were still obstacles to overcome—for example, no one in the band knew how to play drums. What proved most fruitful, though, were the band's weekly practices, which have continued almost entirely undisturbed every Sunday for the past four years. Slowly, a consistent sound has evolved.
"We didn't get together and say, 'We love this record, let's sound like this record,'" Spielman says. "It was just all of us coming together from different angles. It took a long time, but it has a shape now."
Now settled into primary instruments—Spielman got drums, of which Browning seems a tad jealous—the Woolen Men are purveyors of a sound, full of minor chords and brute force, that is rare even in the city that first helped create it. The band is energetic, but not theatrical. They keep the banter to a minimum. For fans like Spookies frontman and Shaky Hands bassist Mayhaw Hoons, who has voted for the Woolen Men in the Best New Band poll for the past three years, that no-bullshit approach is immensely appealing. "To me, they are a band that lies outside the big fashion show of the music scene," Hoons says. "It's not [about] who they know or being seen at the cool shows or gear. It's just about making music."
Still, groups with no clear frontman and a penchant for lo-fi recordings aren't for everyone. Opening a bill with the fuzzed-out psych-rock act Wampire and local pop-punk gods the Thermals last month, the Woolen Men, with their blue-collar aesthetic, left much of the all-ages crowd looking perplexed. "I'm glad I don't have to write about this," one teenager told me after the band's set.
"People don't know what to think about us," Browning admits. This is true in Portland, where the band's reputation has grown slowly but meticulously, and perhaps even more on tour, where its gloomy but melodic post-punk often lacks the context inherent in playing in the Northwest. "On tour, there will be a couple of people who are really excited about what is happening," Browning says. "And a bunch of people who are totally mystified."
Those in the excited camp—among them the influential Woodsist label, which released the Woolen Men's excellent self-titled debut full-length in March—are relentless in their support. It's easy to see why, not only because of the band's strong songwriting, but because this is a fiercely independent group that takes full control of every aspect of its process. From writing to analogue recording to crafting album art, the Woolen Men seem genuinely inspired by creativity in all forms. One gets the impression this would be the same band even if no one ever bothered to listen.
People are listening now, though. After four years together, being recognized as one of Portland's best "new" bands seems odd. The Woolen Men—whose members have an average age of 29—feel like veterans.
"We are a tent pole in a way I never imagined we'd be," Browning says. "Now we play a show at Reed College, and there are kids with big eyes talking to us after the show. It's like, 'Holy fuck—I'm 10 years older than you.'" CASEY JARMAN.
1. Shy Girls
- 100.5 POINTS
- FORMED: 2011.
- SOUNDS LIKE: A make-out session that started in 1989 with the radio tuned to a contemporary R&B station and has continued, uninterrupted, ever sinceâand with the dial untouched.
Dan Vidmar's bedroom is where the magic happens.
On the second level of the Southeast Portland loft he shares with two other guys, through the tapestry that acts as his doorway, the 25-year-old singer-producer is showing off his workstation, which is just a desk, a synthesizer and a frustratingly slow computer. When the songs he recorded here two years ago first made the rounds online, local bloggers and journalists didn't even know who they were coming from, let alone where. Vidmar, who uploaded a pair of EPs under two different names in late 2011 then basically forgot about them, left few clues as to their origins. He omitted songwriting credits from his Bandcamp and SoundCloud pages, and took press photos with his face hidden behind a mask that made him look like a walking Easter Island statue. He insists the intent wasn't to create a mysterious aura. He just didn't think anyone would care.
Now that people clearly do, Vidmar—strong-jawed and steely-eyed, with a thatch of curly hair piled atop his head—has no problem revealing the details of his split artistic personalities: Federer, his slap bass-loving, piña colada-guzzling alter ego; and Shy Girls, his chilled-out, swollen-hearted retro-R&B project.
"In my head, there was a separation," Vidmar says of the two concurrent projects. "Federer is the part of my brain that, like, RVs down to Key West and has a beard and goes to lots of Jimmy Buffett concerts, then comes home to a four-track recorder and is, like, 'Let's get down to business.' Shy Girls is the preteen female side.â
That preteen female is Portland's Best New Band.
It is also, by modern parameters, maybe the most uncool band in the city. Soprano-sax solos, earnest pillow-talk vocals and a production style best described as "dentist-office funk" aren't exactly de rigueur. But that's the appeal. Shy Girls—the side of Vidmar's brain that's grown beyond his bedroom into a full-fledged, seven-piece live act—is a band both of its moment and completely out of time. Plenty of artists Vidmar's age are now reacquainting themselves with the mainstream pop of their youth, making music that taps into a foggy nostalgia for '90s FM radio. Except, there's nothing foggy about Shy Girls' crystal-clear interpretation of the past. Instead of reproducing the feel of twisting a staticky radio dial, its music invokes memories of walking through a mall or riding in an elevator circa 1991. And while it shares traits with the dreamy, lightheaded R&B of Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, the group engages its influences with a lot more honesty. "Blue-eyed soul" is the hipper nomenclature, but if you were to use the term "easy listeningâ to describe it, the band wouldnât take offense.
"A lot of music that's coming out now alludes to that, but is totally fucking afraid of it," Vidmar says, moving downstairs to his couch. "Like Kenny G. People just scoff at Kenny G, and people are afraid to go there. But there's so much there that can translate to people's ears today."
"Taking that stuff out of context is really fascinating," adds keyboardist Ingmar Carlson, Vidmar's childhood friend and roommate, from the other end of the couch. (Full disclosure: WW music calendar editor Mitch Lillie also lives with them.) "What was once easy listening—there's an implication there, that listening to this is easy. And once, perhaps it was. Nowadays, you listen to it and realize, no, it's not."
In the world of Shy Girls, soft is the new hard, smooth jazz is punk as fuck, and Kenny G might as well be Johnny Rotten.
And lest you think the band's embrace of pop's most featherweight textures is an ironic put-on, consider that its creator grew up in State College, Penn., a city where irony doesn't exist. "It's a completely unique situation, in that there's no urban culture there at all, but there's all these people, this academic environment, and a huge party scene," Vidmar says of his hometown. "It's like frat city." The son of business-minded parents, Vidmar was raised in a house with maybe a half-dozen CDs lying around. Once he was old enough to start going to clubs, the only bands in town to learn from played classic-rock covers. By the time he began formulating his own musical ideas, he was basically working from scratch. "I had a completely blank slate."
That doesn't mean the sound of Shy Girls developed out of thin air, though. There are precedents—like the time in elementary school when the principal allowed Vidmar to take over the PA system. "During naptime, we orchestrated this whole event where we played the Aladdin soundtrack for the last hour of school," he recalls. It's not just a cute childhood memory: The fluttery lightness of Disney movie scores, and the generational nostalgia attached to it, certainly influenced the band's aesthetic. (Vidmar even nicked a sample of a snare drum from "A Whole New World" for the breathy "Under Attack.") Attending college at Penn State ("It was my destiny," Vidmar says), he and Carlson—who came from a more musical background, taking piano classes as a kid and listening to a steady stream of Mozart and Bach and his mother's Beatles records—formed a Paul Simon cover act, allowing them to cut their teeth in State College's bar scene while also getting familiar with the polyrhythms that gently roil underneath Shy Girls' delicate skin.
But the project didn't fully congeal until Vidmar relocated to Portland in 2009. At the time, he thought the move would help him develop the Animal Collective-style freak-folk experiments he'd filled his computer with. "I felt like moving to Portland I'd have an opportunity to do that," he says, "whereas at State College, I couldn't even play that kind of music on the street corner." Arriving in town shortly after graduation, Vidmar discovered, contrary to popular belief, the city's tourism bureau does not certify indie-rock careers at the airport. "I found it incredibly difficult, actually, to break into the music scene here," he says. "I remember being super-frustrated. I couldn't really get any gigs. I couldn't get people to play with me. I came out here thinking, 'I'll go out there and meet a bunch of people and stuff will just start happening.â Of course, it didnât happen like that.â
With few other options, Vidmar went back to messing around on his laptop. For reasons that escape him, the soft pop and soul he'd absorbed imperceptibly in his youth—Michael McDonald, Luther Vandross and, yes, Kenny G—burbled to the surface. Federer, with its yacht-rocking, party-in-sandals vibe, came first. He envisioned Shy Girls as that project's cleaner, chilled-out flipside. He didn't have grand aspirations for either. "The only intention I had with it, aside from making something that I wanted to listen to or wanted my friends to hear, was to do something that was uniquely funky," he says. "I felt like people, especially in Portland, were kind of afraid of funk."
Ironically, it was when Vidmar stopped trying to get attention that people started paying it to him. Chris Cantino, artistic director for PDX Pop Now!, stumbled across the band online while looking for acts to book for last year's festival. He was hooked immediately. "There was an air of mystery about them, and the sound had so much potential to explore," Cantino says. "I got the sense we were on the ground floor of something big if the band could somehow just be exposed.â
With an actual gig suddenly on his calendar, Vidmar put together a band, recruiting Carlson and drummer Dan Sutherland, along with two backup singers, a second keyboardist and Tune-Yards saxophonist Noah Bernstein. Offers for more shows rolled in, and over the past year, the group has built a following around its swoony, unguardedly romantic performances. (Its secret weapon is Bernstein, who often seems to beam onto the stage, play a sultry solo, then vanish back into the ether.) Vidmar says he's still unsure of just how popular Shy Girls actually is, but acknowledges there is a buzz, and they need to be careful about stretching it too thin. "I don't want to become one of those bands that plays in Portland every other week for five years," he says.
As of right now, Shy Girls' total recorded output is four songs, though there's a full album's worth of material "up there," Vidmar says, motioning to his room. Now that the proverbial (and literal) mask is off, Vidmar knows all future material will have to stand on its own, without the mystery that initially attracted listeners. A project like Shy Girls, no matter how sincere and well-crafted the sound, is always going to be dogged by accusations of misplaced nostalgia. But that's not an issue Vidmar spends a lot of time worrying about.
"The whole idea of nostalgia to me—yeah, there's some aspect, as we were saying, but all that music also draws from earlier generations, which also draws from earlier generations, and all that," he says. "At the same time, it's not really a concern of mine, if people think it's a calculated, ironic thing. I'm just trying to make solid songs." MATTHEW SINGER.
Who's Got Next?
2013 Best New Band finalists Nos. 11 through 20.
11. Like a Villain 30 pts
12. The Pynnacles 28 pts
13. 1939 Ensemble 25 pts
14/15/16 (tie) Death Songs 24 pts
14/15/16 (tie) Fanno Creek 24 pts
14/15/16 (tie) Vinnie Dewayne 24 pts
17/18 (tie) Magic Fades 21 pts
17/18 (tie) Luck One 21 pts
19. The Satin Chaps 20 pts
20. Edna Vazquez 17 pts