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July 20th, 2005 MARK BAUMGARTEN | Music Stories
 

WHO ARE WE?

Don't listen to the journalists. Listen to the music.

     
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Music writers. Sigh. Sometimes you might want to spare some sympathy for us keyboard-pounding music geeks who, when forced to make sense out of something as abstract as music, take shortcuts, make assumptions and, at times, fall flat on our faces. Consider Andrew Earles, who recently wrote a "humor" column about local music scenes-including a look at Portland-for the July issue of Magnet, another music rag made for 28-year-old white guys.

"This scene is...where grown men act like crushed-out seventh graders and where women are taught to hate grown men," write Earles about our town. "They also believe everyone is racist, which is easy to do when everyone around you is white."

Men with the romantic mentality of seventh-graders? Sure (I'm complicit). Angry women? I've seen 'em. But it's too easy to summarize the Portland sound by considering only the fans of the Shins and Sleater-Kinney.

Now, I'm not here to fight with Earles, a fine writer from Tennessee who gift-wraps his assumptive leap in humor, simply following a major tenet of modern music journalism. If you don't have a complete understanding of a scene, a genre or a song, said rule dictates, it's best just to fall back on humorous sociological generalizations rather than talking about the music. Earles succeeds at this, but our city suffers.

It suffers because underneath Portland's high-profile national acts is a lively music scene so much richer than that stereotypical perception that its existence is like a beautiful secret. Want proof? Just listen to the 41 songs by local bands on the PDX Pop Now! compilation.

Served on two discs, this collection offers a snapshot of a music scene that's about more than just "pop," that percussive palindrome that points to music meant to be consumed en masse. The compilation leaves out much of Portland's music community: mostly, the musicians working within the boundaries of genres like country, jazz, gospel, old time, metal and, save one song, hip-hop. Instead, the collection focuses on the city's forward-looking musicians, artists who are interested in reforming the templates of popular music, using new and old tools to create something fiercely original. These are many of the artists who are creating the framework for a scene that is uniquely Portland in both its geography and its form. But what is that form?

Well, it includes women, as the PDX Pop Now! compilation features a dozen female-fronted bands, from the angry (the Gossip, Sleater-Kinney) to the kind (Mirah) to the undeniably rad (the Blow, LKN). It also has an isolationist streak, as nearly half the acts included here opt to work the one- or two-person-band route while making music that reinvents the sound palette (Nice Nice, Talkdemonic, Y.A.C.H.T.) or reimagines tradition (Dolorean, Alan Singley, Jessica Jones).

And I have no idea what that means for the scene, except that it sounds great and, jokes aside, sounds like Portland-a sweeping geographical generalization that I'm willing to claim.

 
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