(Under the mainstream radar, Alaska’s favorite sons, Portugal. The Man is a band that has been steadily building a devoted fan base and amassing kudos from an array of media outlets like Filter (“Portugal. The Man hasn’t merely evolved from the avant-garde, neo-soul that shaped their earliest works, they’ve transcended it.”), AbsolutePunk (“Portugal. The Man is one of the most unique and original groups of current time.”), and (“…it’s the songs that truly set this band apart.”) Alternative Press.
Portugal. The Man’s unique sound has its roots firmly in front man/songwriter Gourley’s abstract vision and unique upbringing. Gourley was raised in a remote log cabin on the outskirts of Wasilla, Alaska that was powered by a generator and had no phone. His mom and dad doubled as a team of dog sled mushers. Add in an extended period of homelessness, a love of science fiction and a desire to make music that does not sound like every other band, and the genesis of Portugal. The Man was formed. Gourley and childhood friend Carothers formed PTM in 2003 with Portland, OR’s Jason Sechrist joining in 2005. To this day, PTM employs a rotating cast of guest musicians outside of the core four. Gourley is also an accomplished visual artist having created the stunning artwork for the “Censored Colors” package as well as P.TM’s previous releases, tour posters, t-shirts and other items.)
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Whether it occurs consciously or otherwise, preachers preach. Pilots pilot. Destinies destine. Censors censor. Colors color. And bands band together. Naturally, each possesses virtues outside the limits of those slim realities. But none can be without the element that drives it. Portugal. The Man is a band. So, you know what they do. But to truly understand them, you must know what they are. And it would be devastatingly limiting to label this unpinnable Portland-via-Wasilla, Alaska quartet as a mere band. Which they are. But they are also fluid, chameleon, inimitable, complicated, simple, disarming and unconscious.
Stagnant, however, they are not. That concept has no place in their stable. The band – vocalist/guitarist/songwriter John Baldwin Gourley, bassist Zachery Carothers, keyboardist/vocalist Ryan Neighbors and drummer/percussionist Jason Sechrist – tours relentlessly from lands shrouded in seasonal darkness on to destinations of foreign custom and dialect, and all points in between. Since forming in 2005, they’ve conceived an album annually, never repeating paces in the process.
“Ever since we first started, this is exactly what we wanted to do,” explains Gourley. “An album-a-year, tour, and always challenge ourselves by pushing in different directions and trying to do things we haven’t done before.”
Portugal. The Man’s newest album features fifteen fiercely transcendent vignettes. The band calls the collection Censored Colors – side one is a half-dozen single tracks, while side two consists of a long suite of compositions, segued together into one seamless presentation. The music materialized in January 2008 quickly, born from the band’s ravenous creative appetite, many months of dedicated touring and their rare commitment to challenging songcraft, all set against a canvas of Seattle winter skies. They did it without outside financial backing and label support; content instead to rely upon their faith in each other, their music and the steady guidance of friends/multi-instrumentalists/producers Phil Peterson and Kirk Huffman (two-thirds of the genre-defying Seattle trio Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground).
Describing the product of that faith is no impossibility. But, like quantifying an emotion, merely articulating Censored Colors countless aesthetic graces is not the optimal way to take its measure. “We’ve always wanted to make a really heavy record mellow,” reveals Gourley. “And I think this time we did it.”
True, without question. But the shades that coat Censored Colors reveal much more. Drawing on the sounds of Gourley’s youth – from classic Motown to airy Beatles numbers and the blissful melodies of vintage Zombies ballads – and, indeed, shrouded in the singer’s visual art, Portugal. The Man shaped an organic album that stands, sways and, indeed, beckons as an assured departure from the undeniable rock stomp of 2007’s Church Mouth and the band’s kaleidoscopic 2006 debut, Waiter: “You Vultures!” Mixed and lavished with additional production by renowned boardsmen Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Pixies) and Adam Taylor (Muse, The Dresden Dolls) and featuring supplementary vocals and instrumentation by divergent talents like Zoe Manville (Schoolboy Error) and Anthony Saffrey (Cornershop), it is Censored Colors by name. But also challenging and comfortable. Familiar and new. Blasphemous and gentle. Undeniably awash in here-and-now scepticism, it is nonetheless hopeful, plump with as many as appropriately imperfect moments as immaculate ones. It is the music of Gourley’s childhood, made artfully profane by modern experience, coming of age and a quiet caterwaul against contemporary living. Censored Colors.
“Lay Me Back Down” bathes in buoyant, lilting melodies that both underscore and subtly betray its post-gospel doo-wop. “Colors” poetic meditation on all in life that invariably changes and all that inevitably will not; at times whispered in earnest, while in others, belted out through a chorus of voices, deep with conviction. “Hard Times” crashes and climbs a spiralling wave of discordant guitar slams and brass blasts as its hypnotic bass drone grips it against Gourley’s cathartic wail. And on “1989,” Gourley delivers a ballad that amplifies the album’s richest themes through a tender whisper, echoing the passion of yesterday’s war hymns in the face of today’s wintry indifference. It’s a particularly heartfelt anthem of confession and resignation, cast gently against Gourley’s own childhood recollection of the Gulf War. On an album lush with artful hues, it is perhaps Portugal. The Man’s most singular, unconscious shade to date – despite the fact that it’s conception may stand as Censored Colors’ most considered.
“That song took a little longer than all of the others,” intimates Gourley. “Something about it stayed with me and I spent longer writing its lyrics than on any other. I just wanted to get it right – to say what I wanted to say exactly how I said it.”
To keep censors, whether of outside or insular nature, from serving their function. To fill the ponderous, pretty and sometimes profane space that Portugal. The Man occupies among artists whose work serves only to stand as the unfiltered expression of its authors. To be… themselves.
“We love it when people respond to our music in a passionate way,” says Gourley. “And we’re grateful to everyone who supports us and comes to see us play. We love to fill a room with a lot of people. But we really just do this for ourselves. We always have, and we always will.”