Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends | Album Review | By Volume

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Portugal. The Man

Evil Friends

A pristine, infectious rock album which seriously fails to set itself apart.

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Author: on June 3, 2013
June 3, 2013

An uncharacteristically long break from Portland-by-way-of-Alaska indie rockers Portugal. The Man may have some fans thinking this is where the band dares to tread off the well-worn career arc they’ve mapped out for themselves. The group’s evolution from jam band to rock classicists has been stunning not only for its alacrity – this will be the band’s eighth record in almost as many years – but for how inevitable it’s all seemed. John Gourley sounds so at home in the band’s melting pot of patchouli guitar rock and drug-streaked psychedelia that the reckless experimentalism of the band’s early days appears to be a mere prelude to the band’s destiny as quintessential festival band. The flip side to this enjoyably consistent aesthetic cropped up in 2011’s In The Mountain In The Cloud, where for the first time the band’s forward momentum carried them only in circles. They were nice circles, to be sure – a trippy grab-bag of easy anthems and colorful guitar work – but they nevertheless only paid lip service to the band’s flammable live show. The unusual delay that accompanies Evil Friends, though, appears to have harbored less of a desire to push their creative boundaries in-studio and more of an attempt to grab the mainstream success that has so far eluded the band.

Enter Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, on a quest to beef up the band’s rhythm section and add that extra bit of bass kick to the band’s airy tunes – and hopefully the dollars to match – à la Black Keys’ Attack & Release. A better comparison, though, would be to the Burton-produced “Tighten Up,” the song that launched a thousand car commercials, and one that shares this record’s more sonically diverse influences whilst remaining rooted in the power of pop music.

The Danger Mouse effect works about as well as you’d hope it to – the hooks are punchier, the melodies brighter, the tension between Gourley’s multifaceted voice and the increasingly chaotic swell of instruments focused and heightened. See: the playful contrast between the layers of brash horns and synths, and Gourley’s blasé “I don’t fuckin’ care” on the excellent “Creep In A T-Shirt.” There’s the expected elements of R&B, a more expansive use of sound and space and a general eclecticism to the background noises that makes Evil Friends a deliciously textured record, from the faded distortion and tight rhythm on “Hip Hop Kids” to the funky, thick bass and walloping beats on “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.” Even when the band goes back to what they know best, as album centerpiece “Atomic Man” stands proudly on a driving, retro guitar riff and chunky chords, there’s a glow to the production that makes every snare hit and sparkling keyboard stand out that much more.

It’s testament to Burton’s production work, then, that Evil Friends succeeds as a pristine sonic piece, because many of the songs here do little to distinguish themselves from Portugal. The Man’s recent work. In this respect, there’s little difference between Evil Friends and In The Mountain In The Cloud, another record with a penchant for beautiful melodies but also empty ones, songs that bled perilously close to each other and lacked a certain verve. One wishes the band would develop more of the baroque pop of closer “Smile” or the relentless, insistent title track, songs that have a distinct identity from the commonly infectious, commonly repetitive anthems that surround them.

There’s a formula to some of the songs here that is all but extinguished in the live setting – the backing woos are less exhilarating and more clichéd, the multitracked chorus less a sing-a-long and more a recipe for radio play, the bridge perfunctory instead of immediate. It’s a problem Portugal. The Man have struggled with since arguably perfecting their current sound on 2009’s The Satanic Satanist, but until now the band has not had a record with the kind of star power – musically and production-wise – that Evil Friends brings. These are songs to blast at the beach, to sing along with the windows down, to enjoy as four-minute bits of rock escapism. Hopefully it will garner Portugal. The Man the attention they deserve and draw more people to a live show that is one of the best in the scene. Perhaps then the band will finally feel comfortable exploring a sound that hasn’t already been rehashed to perfection and back, and without this numbing sort of precision.

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