This year, we asked 82 of this city's music insiders to tell us the top five local bands that have made an impact on them for the first time in the past year. Those voters came back with a total of 230 bands they felt were worthy of recognition. Equipped with a spreadsheet and a pot of coffee, we tallied up the votes and wondered aloud whether more people went to band practice than went to church in this town.
When the dust settled we had before us 2006's Top 10 List of Portland's Best New Bands (see "Top Ten New Bands, "below ). What we saw was a fine collection of groups that span genres from electronic to folk. (We also noticed that hip-hop and jazz were sorely missing from the group). Then we looked closer, and noticed that the top three bands on our list all had backgrounds that spoke to larger trends in the Portland music scene. The third-place band, Swan Island, is as informed by the Riot Grrrl movement that defined this area throughout the '90s as it is a backlash against it (see "Fantasy Island, below"). Our second-place band, Tractor Operator, is just one of a number of musical acts that have come to Portland from Eugene in the last two years, bringing a different kind of sad sound to the city (see "Eugene-niks, below"). And then there's our official Best New Band, Copy, a one-man electronic dance act who has been lifted up by Portland's growing electronic music scene, bringing blips and bleeps to crowds that would normally bristle at the thought of binary code (see "The Chosen One, below").
The essays that follow the Top 10 list dig into those stories, offering a little insight into the diverse influences that make our city's music scene tick. They also serve as reminders that music is about a whole lot more than that band on stage: It's also about the community of people holding that stage up. —Mark Baumgarten
Top Ten Best New Bands
1. Copy 51 points
Who: Marius Libman
Sounds like: Aphex Twin on anti-psychotics
Voter quote: "Like the themes to Nintendo games you never played transmuted into baroque (and bangin') dancefloor epics." —Brent Bell, PDX Pop Now! board member and Crystal Ballroom bartender
Listen to "Afro Oven" from Copy's full length debut, Mobius Beard, at www.wweek.com/media/7538-1.mp3.
Listen to "Plagiarhythm," a Copy track that appeared on the Pure Tone Audiotonomy Vol. 3 compilation, at www.wweek.com/media/7538-2.mp3.
2. Tractor Operator 26 points
Who: Eric Jensen
What: Indie folk
Sounds like: Isaac Brock's more well-adjusted kid brother
Voter quote: "I love the 4-track sound Eric incorporates in his stuff. It sounds heartfelt and sincere, and his live show is so different from his album. Both are great for different reasons." —Angelo De Ieso II, music writer for PDX Magazine
Listen to "Close the Door" from Tractor Operator's upcoming 7-inch at www.wweek.com/media/7538-3.mp3.
Listen to "April Fool" from Tractor Operator's self-titled full-length at www.wweek.com/media/7538-4.mp3.
3. Swan Island 25 points
Who: Brisa Gonzalez, Torrence Stratton, Aubree Bernier-Clarke, Vera Domini, Bob Kendrick
What: Disco metal fusion
Sounds like: Heart crashing an orgy between the B-52's and Black Sabbath
Voter quote: "Hot ladies, thrashing and rocking around without losing any of the incredible female swagger, creating their very own swan song. " —Connie Wohn, booking agent for Rock 'N' Roll Camp for Girls
Listen to "Night Owl" from Swan Island's 3-inch CD at www.wweek.com/media/7538-5.mp3.
4. Please Step Out of The Vehicle 23 points
Who: Travis Wiggins, David Fimbres, Chris Ubick, Seth Brown, Liam Kenna, Justin Fowler
What: Psychedelic pop
Sounds like: Jonathan Richman and Neutral Milk Hotel getting high together
Voter quote: "I'm a sucker for the early days of lo-fi indie, so it's nice to hear a band that sounds more like early Pavement as opposed to early Joy Division. Music can be happy and clever without being contrived, and PSOOTV does this amazingly well." —Nicole Warren, assistant booker at Doug Fir
Listen to "Clouds Question Their Existence" from PSOOTV's upcoming release Sleeping Right and the Best in Homeopathic Magic at www.wweek.com/media/7538-6.mp3.
5. Norfolk & Western 22 points
Who: Rachel Blumberg, Adam Selzer
What: Folk rock
Sounds like: Sparklehorse playing puppet master with M. Ward and My Morning Jacket
Voter quote: ""With time [Norfolk & Western] became a beautiful band that is growing by leaps and bounds with every show and recording." —Trevor Solomon, director of MusicfestNW
Listen to "The Guilded Age" from Norfolk & Western's album The Guilded Age at www.wweek.com/media/7538-7.mp3.
6. Clorox Girls 21.5 points
Who: Justin Maurer, Clay Silva, Colin Grigson
What: Punk pop
Sounds like: the Dickies and Red Kross boxing
Voter quote: "The hammering drums, the buzzing guitar, humming bass lines and the boyishly sweet/scruffy sex appeal. They're the hardest-working punks in Portland." —Kevin Sampsell, owner of Future Tense Publishing (publisher of Justin Maurer's chapbook)
Listen to "This Dimension" from the Clorox Girls' album This Dimension at www.wweek.com/media/7538-8.mp3.
Listen to "Eons Away" from the Clorox Girls' album This Dimension at www.wweek.com/media/7538-9.mp3.
7. Alan Singley and Pants Machine 21 points
Who: Alan Singley, Benjamin Jaspers, Leb Borgerson, Gus Elg
What: Acoustic psychedelic pop
Sounds like: Rufus Wainwright fronting Pavement, playing songs written by Burt Bacharach
Voter quote: "He's like a music counselor at Bible camp, but instead of being cracked out on Jesus, he's really into apple pie and kittens!" —Hank Failing, owner of Failing Records
Listen to "Watersong" from Alan Singley and Pants Machine's album Lovingkindness at www.wweek.com/media/7538-10.mp3.
Listen to "Highways of our Mindz" from Alan Singley and Pants Machine's album Lovingkindness at www.wweek.com/media/7538-11.mp3.
8. The Nice Boys 19.9 points
Who: Colin Jarrell, Gabe Lageson, Terry Six, Alan Mansfield, Brian Lelko
What: Power pop/Rock
Sounds like: the Small Faces and the Ramones making out with the Soviettes
Voter quote: " It's as if they've been retro-blasted to the future from 1976, when true rock bands still roamed the planet. It just doesn't get any more rock and roll than the Nice Boys!"" —Greta O'Rourke, publicist at Madmoxie PR
Listen to "You Won't See Me Anymore" from the Nice Boys' 7-inch at www.wweek.com/media/7538-12.mp3.
9. White Rainbow 19 points
Who: Adam Forkner
What: Experimental psychedelia
Sounds like: Brian Eno in love
Voter quote: "White Rainbow's shows get better and better and trippier and trippier all the time. This music is startlingly good, and is far better than it has any right being. Forkner is surely one of Portland's most consistently interesting and smart-as-fuck musicians."—Mike McGonigal, publisher of Yeti
Listen to "Guilded Golden Ladies" from White Rainbow's album Zome at www.wweek.com/media/7538-13.mp3.
Listen to "Song for Willow" from White Rainbow's 5-disc box set, Box, at www.wweek.com/media/7538-14.mp3.
Listen to "Deep Afro Groove," an unreleased track by White Rainbow, at www.wweek.com/media/7538-15.mp3.
10. DJ Beyonda 17 points
Who: Casey Minatrea
What: Hip-hop, electro, party rock DJ
Sounds like: a mixtape from your beat-addicted subconscious
Voter quote: "Each time I've heard her spin there's been at least one perfect moment that totally sends shivers down my spine, usually involving her mixing two (or three) records together that I totally love and totally want to hear together in a way I never thought would work. Last time I think it was Ginuwine into Missy into Ratatat." —Matt Wright, publicist at Matt Wright PR
The Chosen One
1. Copy - 51 points
It's July 2004, and Holocene—barely a year old—is all but empty. Marius Libman, opening for Talkdemonic, is on stage playing glitchy, downtempo laptop music to the approving nods of a few lucky listeners. It's his first solo show, played under the fitting moniker Copy, and the music is obviously there, but outside of the bare industrial walls of Holocene, no one is noticing. The incessant bass throb of underground electronica had been pulsing from Portland for a decade, but this was a rock town, the crowds for electronic music were few, and Copy didn't appear to be doing anything to change that fact.
There was no dancing at Holocene that night. Though woven with funk and soul samples, Libman's fledgling sound wasn't concerned with bringing people to their feet. The air was full of rough edges and irregular rhythms. This was nerd music.
Fast-forward to March 2006. Copy is back at Holocene, its industrial character shrouded by Libman's pulsing compositions and the sweat of a capacity crowd celebrating the release of It's Importland to Me to Be One Step Further Than One Step Beyond, a compilation that paired local electronic acts with traditional Portland rock bands. The music being played by Libman, who is wielding a Korg keytar, running his laptop and holding court over a dancing mass, has changed, moving further into the bright, poppy world of electronic dance music. And Portland has changed with him.
The best evidence: Copy has been selected as Portland's Best New Band by our city's music heads, garnering votes across the musical spectrum, from diehard rockers and classic indie kids to the same crowd that was nodding their heads to his first show at Holocene.
How did this happen? How did our city suddenly turn on to electronica?
In a sense, it started 10 years before, when Libman was, himself, a rock kid. Growing up in Seattle, he first picked up an instrument, a bass guitar, at age 12 and started playing in a handful of "crappy punk rock bands" while rockin' out to everything from Fugazi to Primus to Led Zeppelin. His musical exploration took him from classic rock and punk to hip- and trip-hop—Portishead, Tribe Called Quest—and then into Bitches Brew. From there his music-geek path took a major turn, leading to an obsession with the still-thriving grandparent of 21st-century electronica, Warp Records, the London label that released the albums of Aphex Twin, an IDM revolutionary Libman can barely go 10 minutes without mentioning.
Fortunately, the Libman household was headed by a pair of tech workers who, in 1995, were part of a select few that owned a computer with enough balls to run an early music-making program called Fruity Loops. With this arcane set of sequencing tools Libman began exploring his new obsession. Bathed in blue monitor glow, the boy who would grow to be Copy filled his first empty room with his first beat.
But Libman didn't single-handedly bring electronic music to the Portland masses. Rather, this reserved 25-year-old is riding a wave of local influences that have been schooling anyone who would listen in the beauty of the glitchy and glissando sounds of binary code.
Libman's main classroom was Holocene, the Southeast club that gave electronic music a home in Portland. In addition to introducing regular dance nights where DJs like Beyonda (who placed No. 10 on this year's list) often spin electronic dance music, the venue hosted touring electronic acts that really had nowhere to play in town, save for the occasional token show at the now-defunct Blackbird or Berbati's Pan. In 2003, Scott McLean, Jarkko Cain and Charlie Hodge gave the city a venue fully dedicated to the style and its local provocateurs, big names of Portland's electronica foundation—Strategy, Solenoid and Nudge, to name the few that gripped Libman after he moved to Portland three years ago.
"Holocene has been great since my inception with getting me shows and opportunities to play," Libman says. "Almost all of my shows have been at Holocene. It's only been in the past couple of months where I've played other venues."
The appearance this past winter of the Importland compilation, released on the heels of Copy's excellent debut, Mobius Beard, was a landmark for the genre in Portland's mainstream. Not only was it an all-around kick-ass record, but it marked the first release of the club's new eponymous label—which is joined by two other new local electro-centric labels, E*Rock's Fryk Beat and Paul Dickow's Community Library. More importantly, the disc was a high profile reintroduction to Portland's neglected masters, the people to whom Copy owes his success more than even Holocene.
Covered by rock music's looming shadow, Portland harbored a crew of electronica artists well before Libman had his first taste of Fruity Loops. Or before Holocene first opened its doors. The scene hid in small cafes (Umbra Penumbra, Thee O Hell), the old Disjecta and the now-defunct Jasmine Tree. The latter, an odd tiki bar in Southwest Portland, was the site of Frequency, a 26-week series of shows attended by touring electronica artists in late 1997. The series ended after showcasing more than 40 producers with nary a peep from the local music press.
After a decade of toil in Portland, and success everywhere but, the originators are an angsty bunch. Dickow, a.k.a. Strategy, confesses to being a bit "bitter" and "envious" of the recognition Copy is receiving. Justifiably so, perhaps, given Dickow's slight local profile, despite the support of folks like Holocene Music co-owner and local publicist Matt Wright, who calls Dickow "the best electronic musician here. Period. If not the best overall." David Chandler, a.k.a. Solenoid, explains the sentiment further: "Somewhere between 1996 and 2006, I went from 'Solenoid' to 'veteran electro producer Solenoid.' Veteran...when? If I were reading WW all that time, you'd think I must have been interviewed even once." Copy himself is as confused by electronica's lack of recognition here as Solenoid is pissed off by it.
"I come along and do a really similar thing," he confesses. "And I've already got a lot more attention than Solenoid ever has, which I don't really understand."
Dickow's trio, Nudge, was one of the first bands that rubbed off on Copy, and that first show at a near-empty Holocene in the summer of 2004 showed it. Libman's style then mimicked that group's disjointed bouts of jazzy electronica. It was "head-scratching music," according to Chandler, rather than dance-floor music.
Now Copy has moved into a different realm of accessibility. With the help of Holocene's dance floor and his inventive forebears, Libman has melded those two worlds and grabbed Portland by its ears, showing it how to dance. This student, it appears, has become a teacher. —MICHAEL BYRNE
2. Tractor Operator - 26 Points
Anyone who heard Tractor Operator's self-titled debut in the year since its release would be hard-pressed to imagine what type of band could have crafted it. Lyrically, the album is laser-focused in its discontent. The first track, "A.M. Sale," starts with the declarative line "Existence is already wasting away with banners and slogans." From there it's all desertion, parental malfeasance and lots and lots of guns.
This is the stuff of loud, angry rock records, words that bands lock into and rock out with. But Tractor Operator is no such band. The music here is restrained, a kaleidoscope of meticulous instrumentation, with twinkling acoustic guitars and drums that tap at a heartbeat's pace, only occasionally giving way to a fuzz-drunk, propulsive song that could only technically be called rock. This is an incredible band, able to deliver bitter pills with beauty.
But the truth is, it's not a band at all.
Tractor Operator is the work of a single man, Eric Jensen, who played all the instruments and recorded the entirety of the record (which is actually an amalgam of three limited-release EPs) in his living room. That album, along with Jensen's chilling solo acoustic sets at local clubs and cafes like Food Hole, Valentine's and Acme, have gained the songwriter enough notice to land him the second spot on this year's Best New Band list. But the wiry 27-year-old owes the success of his decidedly solo venture to a whole community of musicians located 100 miles south of Portland in Eugene, a bucolic college town as famous for its anarchists and hippie festivals as its University of Oregon track team. Along with Jensen, these players formed the creative core of the Eugene music scene before most of them moved to Portland in late 2004.
It was in front of those musicians during a semi-regular semi-open-mic evening at the notorious Eugene rock club John Henry's that Jensen shed the famously loud music of his band Pellet Gun and began crafting a solo sound that would eventually turn into Tractor Operator.
"That was where I played a lot of those songs for the first time," Jensen says of those nights at John Henry's. "I'd always written songs solo, but I didn't really play them out that much."
The open-mic nights, inspired by boredom and a hankering for free beer, turned into a sort of experimental lab where members of a handful of musicians in rock bands could take a toned-down break from their plugged-in rock bands. Knowing that acoustic guitars and endless pitchers (provided free of charge by co-organizer, and John Henry's barback, Mike Barnhill) led to music of the more depressing sort, they dubbed the evening the Sad Bastard Night.
And the crowds never came.
"I think the rules were pretty much like the rules of an orgy," says guitarist Ben Hubbird of the Morals at a recent reunion of the Sad Bastards, sans Jensen, at the Green Room in Northwest Portland. "You had to be invited to take part."
Snobbish? Perhaps, but those rules gave the night a certain degree of quality control, yielding the stage to the likes of Jensen, Hubbird, Brian Mumford, Alexis Stevens, Greg Dalby and Casey Jarman, who have all since become notable talents in the Portland music scene.
"We would each play two or three songs and move on to the next," recalls Jarman, who is a WW contributor (see "Fantasy Island, below" and also in the Morals. "We'd keep going like that until they closed the bar down, or until we were too drunk to play."
"I don't really remember too much of those nights," adds Dalby. "But I know that we all stole little bits from each other. I know I did, anyway."
All of those musicians, carrying their own version of the Eugene Sad Bastard torch, are fairing well in the Portland music scene. Dragging an Ox through Water placed 11th in this year's BNB poll, while Ferocious Eagle, which features Dalby and Jensen (playing drums) just inked a deal with the influential indie rock label 54 40' or Fight. And others, including the Morals, the Sun and Stevens' solo act, have been gaining a live following and plan on releasing albums in the next year.
But Jensen is far and away the most accomplished. His musicianship is on par with obvious influence Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, his production techniques are inventive and effective, and his lyrics conjure crisp, desperate images while his dry delivery lays those breathtaking words mostly bare ("She's walking on stilts, steppin' over hills towards me," he sings in an eerie baritone on "Two Dead Cats"). His old Sad Bastard friends agree.
"Have you heard his new album?" asks Stevens, referring to Tractor Operator's upcoming 7-inch release. "It's just amazing. I told him that it's one of those things that when I get that thing I'm just going to wear it out. It's so good."
"You're going to have to buy three," adds Dalby. —MARK BAUMGARTEN
3. Swan Island - 25 points
Swan Island exists in a fantasy world. One where girls rock harder and louder than boys. One where the destruction of nations means dance parties at the center of the earth. One where, "If you close your eyes," drummer Vera Domini says, lost in possibility, "We could be boys in a basement or girls on a stage. We could be..." "Mythological creatures," chimes in vocalist Brisa Gonzalez. "Yeah, unicorns," Domini laughs.
If Gonzalez and Domini seem a little wide-eyed, perhaps it's because they are children of the mid-'90s Portland rock scene. As preteens, the two would sneak out of their Northeast Portland homes together to see Sleater-Kinney at La Luna, or Team Dresch at the Paris Theater. There they were audience to some of the Pacific Northwest's most rocking women, and the leaders of a national movement for female empowerment through rock that would give birth to hundreds of bands and organizations like Portland's own Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. These bands opened a door of possibility to a young Domini and Gonzalez that has led them to become, in the eyes of WW's Best New Band voters, one of the best new acts in Portland.
But the bandmembers are anything but new to the scene. At the same time she was sneaking out to dance the night away, Domini was not content merely to watch her idols play. In the mid-'90s, at the age of 12, she began playing bass in a band called Menagerie, which caught the eye of Sean Croghan, lead singer of the influential Portland funk-punk band Crackerbash. Soon Menagerie was opening for the group at the Crystal Ballroom, and Domini was still in junior high.
The other Swan Islanders, with the exception of guitarist Torrence Stratton (who had never been in a band until Swan Island formed in October 2004), were also embedded in rock from a young age. Guitarist Aubree Bernier-Clarke found success with her Louisville, Ky., group, Half-Seas-Over, before moving to Portland in 2002 at the urging of friends. Upon her arrival, she immediately began playing with Portland rock icon Sara Dougher (Cadallaca, the Crabs) in a band called Cherchez la Femme, a name some might recognize as the moniker for Dougher's burgeoning record label.
Despite the relative youth of the band (three members are under 23) and the fact that it hasn't yet released an album, Swan Island has already played with influential Portland groups like the Gossip and Sleater-Kinney. Later this month, the young Swan Islanders will open for Team Dresch at that band's Portland reunion show.
That will be a golden moment for the ladies who 10 years ago watched Donna Dresch from the crowd. But while the two bands will share a stage in addition to sharing all-female rosters and progressive politics, comparisons should probably end there. Team Dresch songs like "Hate the Christian Right‚" and "Fagetarian and Dyke" carry overtly progressive political messages that resonate within the queer community. Swan Island, while also deeply rooted in Portland's queer community, veers from in-your-face political material. The band prefers to focus on keeping the crowd dancing.
In the tradition of its heroes, Swan Island leads by example at its live shows and never stops moving. Gonzalez is the most frenetic, flinging her long black hair in circles and running in place like a woman possessed. The band's audiences have generally been quick to join in.
"I think, in general, our friends are just dancers," Domini says. "So there's that core of people dancing, and it's infectious."
The dancing is all the more captivating considering that Swan Island isn't your usual dance band. For all its Northwest riot grrrl influences, Swan Island's sound has more in common with Black Sabbath (whom the members love) than the Red Aunts. Gonzalez belts out her epic, fantasy-world lyrics without a hint of Corin Tucker tremolo while her band chugga-chugs shamelessly along, stopping the classic-rock riffs occasionally to switch into disco-dance-beat breakdowns. "If you strip away everything but the drums and bass," Bernier-Clarke correctly notes, "we are pure funk."
If you go further and strip away all the music, there is a subtle message to the group's music. Swan Island's politics are imbedded in a lengthy, ongoing metaphor that Gonzalez says flows through most of the band's songs. The "theme," as the band often refers to it, involves death, rebirth and catastrophe mixed with an overwhelming sense of hope.
"Disaster forces you to build something new," Bernier-Clarke says. According to the band, this particular something culminates in a post-apocalyptic dance party at the center of the Earth. "There are so many ways we perceive the world these days that there is no objective reality," Bernier-Clarke continues. "So you might as well create your own fantasy world."
Swan Island insists that its somewhat obscure message should not be seen as a weakness. Because the band's message comes coated in fantasy, unwitting right-wing rockers and apolitical scenesters are more likely to fall for Swan Island's irresistible groove-rock. Otherwise, Domini says, "you can only preach to the choir. We want to totally subvert the rock scene. We can hit them with the secret one-two punch of 'now listen to what we are saying.' But it's not going to happen the first time you pop [the album] in."
Whether Portland grasps Swan Island's utopian message remains to be seen. What is certain is that the Swan Islanders are being heard, seen and recognized as a vibrant voice in a rock tradition that might have started in the Pacific Northwest, but is no longer bound by any borders.
"There is a lineage in Portland," says Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker. "But young women have always sought out role models that appeal to them, and there are girls plunking on guitars all over the world. And you can bet they will show up at the Swan Island show." —CASEY JARMAN
Check out Copy, Tractor Operator and Swan Island in action at WW's Best New Band showcase Friday, May 12, at Berbati's Pan. 9 pm. Free. 21+.
Check out the Best New Band Ballot letter and our voters individual ballots at www.wweek.com/media/7538-16.doc.