Sounds of the City: Portland

Portland, Oregon may not necessarily be the first city that springs to mind when one thinks of an up-and-coming hub for alternative music, but truth be told Portland has quietly emerged as one of the world’s cornerstone cities of indie culture. The 1980’s put Portland on the music map. Over the last 30 years punk rock evolved into grunge, riot grrrl, and eventually into alternative indie rock. Nowadays, Portland surely is a blueprint for a successful 21st-century city. This zany but precocious mini-metropolis stands at the cutting edge of all that’s cool, hip and forward- thinking about modern America.

Portland has been a hotbed of indie music since the mid 1990’s and prominent musicians such as The Dandy Warhols, Gossip, The Decemberists and the late Elliot Smith have all sprung out of Portland. Quasi, Sleater-Kinney and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks also strongly defined the city’s music scene. Many bands have also moved to Portland: The Shins, Modest Mouse and !!! (pronounced Chk, Chk, Chk) now all call Portland home. Up-and-coming bands include eccentric Wild Flag, Morning Teleportation and folk bands Blind Pilot and Weinland. She & Him is a folk, country duo and is fronted by actress Zooey Deschanel. Grouper has been labeled as the pinnacle of the 2008 ethereal dream-pop movement and ‘Heavy/I’d Rather Be Sleeping’ with its reverb and delicate vocals is almost painstakingly beautiful. Other bands that display remarkable vocals include Tu Fawning and Shelley Short. Tu Fawning’s ‘I Know You Know’ initially sounds like its being played from an old-fashioned phonograph but as Corrina Repp’s full-throated and melodramatic voice kicks in you know you’ve found something haunting and original. Tu Fawning also score bonus points for their videos: they’re asthetically pleasing and quite bizarre. This actually goes for most of Portland’s bands: in terms of their performances and videos, they are strongly connected with the visual and special effects.

Portland’s experimental and electronic scene is a little more difficult to track down: it seems they’re more about producing folk and baroque pop that pay homage to eccentric yet tender voices. However, Jackie-O Motherfucker with their multi-instrumental sound are one of Portland’s oldest experimental bands and Explode Into Colours are definitely a trio to watch. Starfucker and YACHT offer electropop and indie-electronica. Starfucker formed in 2007 and are undoubtedly underrated: the music is upbeat and fun and their unique sound often catches you by surprise. Singer Josh Hodges describes the band’s music as “dance music that you can actually listen to, that’s good pop songs, but also you can dance to it.” In keeping with Portland’s striking connection with the visual, YACHT are one of those bands that you have to see live to understand them, or indeed to fully appreciate them. The band consists of Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans: the girl has blonde hair and always wears black, the guy has black hair and always wears white. Live performances include synchronized dance routines, elaborate powerpoint presentations and impressive contact with the audience. The weird clucking noise on ‘Psychic City’ is no machine or synth, but instead Jona’s immaculate control over his vocal cords. The level of talent in Portland is staggering: musicians work together; band members are swapped and shared and people are industrious, smart and savvy. Portlanders are aware of the positive force that their music brings to the city and it is this unity that makes Portland special.

The Missippi and Alberta districts are home to Potland’s music venues. Portland prides itself in being a quirky city that is culturally and intellectually progressive. North East and South East Portland are definitely the mecca for the creative, the weird and the wonderful. Cheap rent and an abundance of basements may well be the reason why so many bands and musicians have moved to Portland, and its also where most clubs and bars are found. Doug Fir is a basement venue and Towne Lounge is located in the ground floor of a converted funeral home. Abandoned houses have been renovated and converted into bars or venues: Brazen Beans is an antique Victorian house and Wonder Ballroom is a refurbished 1914 building. Berbati’s, Crystal Ballroom and Disjecta are Portland’s longstanding music venues. LaurelThirstPub and Holocene regularly host live acts. Portland has its fair share of festivals: Longbaugh and Time-Based Arts Festival cater for film and contemporary arts while Halleluwah and MusicfestNW are the city’s main music events. Don’t be fooled by Portland’s low-key status, keep an eye and an ear out: Portland is definitely emerging as an important contributor in today’s music scene.

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