Soulful pop

Portugal. The Man's latest album shows off Alaska roots

September 10, 2009 

Portugal. The Man, Alaska's most punctuated band, has come a long way from their Wasilla roots. They relocated to Portland, Ore., and boast a rigorous touring schedule of roughly 250 shows annually. This year they also added big-name festivals Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. But, "The Satanic Satanist" -- the band's fourth album in as many years -- brings thematic attention back to the Last Frontier, with most of the songs hearkening to lead singer John Baldwin Gourley's time growing up in rural Alaska.

"We lived in Trapper Creek, Cooper Landing, Healy ... we moved around a lot," Gourley said.

He said the new album is written in the spirit of his family's car ride sing-alongs, and with lyrics like "Yeah we got some guns / got some dogs / but just like them dogs / well those guns just get bigger," the Alaskan-ness of Portugal. The Man becomes evident.

"The Satanic Satanist," named ironically to contrast the record's upbeat subject matter, moves the band's sound in a more coherent direction. They've shifted from longer jams to concise, three-minute tracks.

The band, which also features Ryan Neighbors on keyboards, Jason Sechrist on drums and Zachary Scott Carothers on bass and percussion, has evolved subtly from the more raucous and eerie sounds of their 2007 record, "Church Mouth." The new album shows a fresh understanding of song writing and pop music. It echoes record structures of classic soul -- even a bit of Motown -- and strips away the more esoteric loops and vamps of their early work. The result is a crisp, tight pop record.

"People Say," the leadoff track, starts with a cheery major pentatonic guitar solo and an upbeat tone that carries through the entire album. "The Sun" injects even more glee at the midpoint of the record with the lyrics, "slip on down from the sun to climb / down to earth and down to things like time / because we are all we are all just lovers / born of earth and light like all the others." Gourley said the song is inspired by endless summer days and the really short winter ones.

"We're all pop kids. Growing up in the Valley, we only got mainstream music, and usually a year or two after everyone else," Gourley said. "It took until now to embrace it, but there's nothing dirty about a pop song. I'm over my fear of the major chord."

"Satanist's" simplicity in form doesn't compromise the band's creativity. Recording without a label, but in a more upscale studio setting, keyboardist Neighbors was able to experiment with more obscure setups that add a necessary layer of complexity to complement the relatively sparse use of sampling on the record.

Portugal. The Man has cut an album record a year since 2006 and shows no signs of slowing. "I'm always asked, 'An album a year? How do you do it?' But people work every day of their lives. That's so much more work than an album a year," Gourley said. "You really have to work for these things."

Gourley considers touring and recording equal parts of his job as an artist and giving anything less than 100 percent "just lazy."

In fact, the band has finished its next record already.

"It's full of samples and minor chords; basically, the complete opposite of Satanist," Gourley said. "I headed up to Boston with Ryan and Zoe (Manville) and we put down something completely different."

The group has a few dozen more US tour dates before heading to Europe for the rest of the year. Gourley said they hope to head home and play a few shows in Alaska around New Year's Day.

"If it wasn't for the tour, I would be in Alaska right now," Gourley said. "Leaving really made me appreciate (the state) so much more."

Soulful pop

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