Portugal. The Man, ‘Evil Friends’ – Album Review
Over seven schizophrenic studio albums, Alaska's Portugal. The Man have built a career on sonic illogic, jumping from psych-rock to emo to prog-like stations in a bizarre cable package. But with 'Evil Friends,' their eighth overall effort (and second for major label Atlantic Records), they've made the unlikely transition toward the streamlined mainstream, working with "it" producer Danger Mouse on a set of highly manicured, highly sculpted pop nuggets.
But 'Evil Friends' isn't an eye-rolling ploy for commercial domination. In fact, it's a clever move for all parties -- Danger Mouse is the rare breed of producer who appeals equally in commercial radio stations and hipster college dorm rooms. He's an adept, malleable collaborator, bringing out the best in acts as diverse as Broken Bells, the Black Keys and Beck. But he also has a distinct stylistic palette, so for the Portgual dudes, the biggest risk here is being overshadowed.
Opener 'Plastic Soldiers' is so clearly a Danger Mouse production that it's borderline amusing (check the booming bass, the gentle orchestrations, the crackling drums). But it's highly potent stuff, regardless of who may have been pulling the strings. Less convincing is 'Creep In a T-Shirt,' which nabs both bratty demeanor and chord progression from Foster the People's ubiquitous 'Pumped Up Kicks.' The more sculpted the tracks get, the more anonymous they ultimately feel: Every song seems to have a mid-tempo "la la la" hook, and the approach gets tiring about halfway through the album.
Luckily, PTM have way better chops (not to mention a wider sonic scope) than their indie-pop brethren; check the mind-numbing bass runs on 'Purple Yellow Red and Blue,' the sparkling electronics on 'Modern Jesus' or the moody ballad 'Sea of Air,' which suddenly erupts into 'Sgt. Pepper'-styled orchestral madness.
John Gourley remains more a captivating frontman than an actual technical singer, and his mousey delivery isn't quite visceral enough to sell tracks like the soulful 'Holy Roller (Hallelujah).' The album's most captivating moments are the most inward, using anti-religious imagery as a source of self-empowerment. ("After you, hell should be easier," Grouley sings on the excellent 'Atomic Man'; on 'Sea of Air,' he reflects, "When you talk to God about suicide / When you never hear back, I hope you're still alive.")
'Evil Friends' is never less than catchy -- and more often that not, it's equally inventive, blurring the catchy and the convoluted into an intriguing wash of hooks. Not everything works, but what does makes a lasting impression -- even if it's not their impression.