Eugene Weekly : Music : 9.17.09

Dark Perfection

The first cut on The Satanic Satanist — the latest release by Wasilla’s own Portugal. The Man (yes, that Wasilla) — sounds like some long-lost Songs from Big Pink outtake: A brief organ flourish introduces “People Say,” followed by a series of hyper-articulated guitar licks à la Robbie Robertson, anchored by a meaty bass line and all held together by a jaunty backbeat that bubbles up from The Band’s “Cripple Creek.” The similarities don’t end there. PTM has that same feel of being a hard-working collective, a team of solid, above-average musicians finding inspiration in the bump and spark of their individual parts. Hell, what else is there to do in the snowbound midnight of Alaska but perfect your chosen craft, whether that be hunting wolves from a low-flying helicopter or, instead, learning the ins and outs of popular music, moving rigorously from the seminal four-bar blues to the croon and sway of soul, making a pit stop in folk and disco and progressing right on up to the quiet/loud aesthetic of grunge, the wispy melodies of emo and the technological savvy of hip hop? Obviously, Sarah. The Palin has missed out on everything her hometown has to offer.

On their new album, PTM, led by guitarist and singer John Gourley, pick and choose liberally from the fruited heap of music history — from Motown to the Shins — and their use of loops and samples and other studio-bound trickery is subtle and tasteful, always serving the song and not visa versa. The songs, with their layered harmonies and soaring, catchy choruses, have an appealing orchestral quality that — unlike, say, Alaska’s former governor — only occasionally slides into overindulgence and bombast. Portugal. The Man (now based in Portland) is one thing from Wasilla  you don’t have to be an idiot to like.

Portugal. The Man plays with Drug Rug and Bazil Rathbone at 9 pm Friday, Sept. 18, at the WOW Hall. $10 adv., $12 door. — Rick Levin

Life Amid the Ruins

What is known of Ruins of Ooah is that it’s a spin-off of the popular local band Reeble Jar, formed of Adam Bushey on drums, Justus Williams on harmonica and vocals and Tyler Spencer on didjeridu and vocal rhythms. But what are these ruins, and what, or where, is Ooah? The cover of the self-titled album doesn’t dispel the unknown: Clouds threaten to obscure a forgotten landscape carved in stone, and yet the clouds part to reveal a glimmer of sunshine, along with some mystical symbols. The didjeridu is an instrument possessed of an ancient spirit; it creates an organic drone apropos to the oldest known wind instrument in the world. When the music of Ruins of Ooah begins, though, it’s even more unexpected than what all of this imagery might convey. 

Tyler Spencer is so proficient in his instrument that he coaxes all sorts of tones and rhythms out of it. The album begins with “Oil and Towers,” filled with the twirling rhythms and staccato punctuations of harmonica and didjeridu, perfect for a chase scene in a classic crime caper movie. In “Krunkmaster,” melodies flutter like wings alongside a groovy circular pulse that will give you tunnel vision. When the drums take over near the end, it’s a tribal rhythm you wish would last all night.

“Mountain Man” manages to combine harmonica-driven blues, the didjeridu’s rhythmic pulse and actual singing. With a high-energy jazz backbone and minimalist instrumentation, Ruins of Ooah is even more mind-bending than its parent band. New respect for didjeridu and its possibilities! Ruins of Ooah and Empty Space Orchestra play at 9:30 pm Friday, Sept. 18, at Sam Bond’s Garage. 21+. $5. — Vanessa Salvia

Soul Serenade

The list of white men who can sing pure, unadulterated soul music and not sound like complete and utter fools is a very short one (and it does not include the majority of pasty U.K. singers who’ve done inexplicably well here in the U.S. lately), but Michigan native Mayer Hawthorne is the latest addition to that small, exclusive club. The guy may look like Rivers Cuomo’s nerdly illegitimate son come home to roost, but his silky soul ballads sound like remastered edits of some obscure ’60s Motown release Hawthorne picked up at a Goodwill dollar bin. And at first, Stones Throw label head Peanut Butter Wolf thought that’s exactly what the initial recordings — on which Hawthorne sang and played all the instruments — were. Eventually, Hawthorne convinced him otherwise, and after hearing just two songs, Peanut Butter Wolf signed Hawthorne to the label. For better or worse, his first record on Stones Throw, A Strange Arrangement, is so good it’ll probably spark a whole new generation of blue-eyed soul imitators putting out bad records that will function most successfully as embarrassing reminders that soul is one of those things you just can’t learn. Either you’ve got it, or you don’t. And Hawthorne’s got it. Mayer Hawthorne and the County play with James Pants, Buff1 and Animal Farm at 9 pm Saturday, Sept. 19, at the WOW Hall. $10 adv., $12 door. — Sara Brickner

Ragged Ambience

Eugene band Star’s End‘s debut album, The Escape, is really spacey. Fuzz and effects cover Andres Caputo’s blaring guitar like tribbles. Jason Ray’s bass thrums heavy and low like a cooling warp-core. J.R. Bellizzi’s drums flick eardrums like meteorites hammering the hull of an Apollo spacecraft.

Five of the 10 songs on this album break the five-minute mark, and two of them reach almost nine minutes. These guys have plenty of time within every track to introduce the song’s theme, establish a verse and chorus pattern and push their established instrumental themes to varying dynamics, which they do solidly. The wandering ambient sound of this threesome is akin at times to Brian Eno’s piano work, but with rock amplification and distortion.

But with all the spectacular instrumental orchestration Star’s End displays, the vocals can sometimes be shaky, especially in the high end, which can sound a little ragged. That’s not to say that Star’s End is lacking lyrically; the band handles the message of their songs more than competently. And when they slow down to ballad tempo, like on “Snowed In,” Caputo and Ray’s harmonizing works well; they don’t have to compete with their own thick layers of instrumental distortion. This album has some highlights and a barn-burning beginning and end. Star’s End celebrates the release of The Escape with Tullis and Drebin at 9 pm Saturday, Sept. 19, at Oak St. Speakeasy. 21+. Free. — Shaun O’Dell

Quiet Music Takes Over the World

If someone were charged with choosing a trio of artists who might collectively summarize the group of off-kilter sonic weirdo-geniuses that comprise K Records, Tara Jane O’Neil, Karl Blau and Phil Elverum would all be final contenders. While this particular trio of songwriters doesn’t acknowledge K Records’ louder side (i.e. Seattle rock band Wallpaper or Ian Svenonius’ latest project, Chain and the Gang), K Records has historically been defined by introspective minimalist songwriters like Elverum (currently Mount Eerie, formerly the Microphones) and Blau. But there are major similarities in the approach all three artists take to songwriting; Blau, Elverum and O’Neil all do a lot with a little, writing deceptively minimal bedroom recordings that, with the use of contraptions like looping pedals and session musician friends, cast a sonic shadow much larger than the songs themselves. While TJO is a recent addition to the K family, it’s almost surprising that it took her so long for her to settle down there when you consider how well her hushed, luminous songs — like her first release on the label, A Ways Away — mesh with the label’s overarching aesthetic. No Kids is the only relative outlier in this weekend’s UO show; the young Canadian band is on Tomlab, plays actual rock songs and will, ideally, liven up what will otherwise be a fairly quiet show of heartfelt sentiments and serious introspection. Tara Jane O’Neil, Karl Blau, Phil Elverum and No Kids play at 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 24, at the EMU Amphitheater. Free. — Sara Brickner

Best of the Guys

Mason Jennings’ newest album Blood of Man plays like a “best of” album for major male singer/songwriters of the last four decades. His vocal slurs, which run the spectrum of harmonies and intentional dissonance, will remind listeners of Bob Dylan in some of his finer live moments. This phenomenon becomes clear in songs like “The Field,” where Jennings’ voice rolls up and down like waves. Some might recognize his voice from the Dylan-centric movie I’m Not There. Christian Bale’s lip-synced covers of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” were both performed by Jennings.

But listeners might also relate Jennings’s new electric sound to Bruce Springsteen, more specifically to Nebraska. The haunting surf and rockabilly reverb and echo of “City of Ghosts” will bounce around listeners’ brains like the howls of a wino sleeping off a drunk between skyscrapers. The yelps stuck into the background sound like the Boss’s exclamations on “State Trooper.”

Jennings is a storyteller with a rebel slant. He touches on political and personal themes that the likes of Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg and countless other musicians have visited a hundred times before. From lost loves to war, the road is well-worn and easy to follow. Mason Jennings and the Crash Kings play at 8 pm Thursday, Sept. 24, at the McDonald Theatre. $17 adv., $20 door.
 — Shaun O’Dell