Review: Portugal. The Man – ‘Evil Friends’

By Live4ever - Posted on 02 Jul 2013 at 7:30am

Unorthodox producer Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton has become synonymous with applying a Midas-like touch to the work of many an eclectic band or artist over the course of the last decade.

A man whose impressive C.V has seen him toasting tunes for everyone from Gorillaz through to MF Doom and, of course, a collaboration with Cee Lo Green on the insanely successful Gnarls Barkley project.

On ‘Evil Friends‘, Mr. Mouse works his alchemical magic with Portland prog poppers Portugal. The Man, inserting traces of the brave new world, hands in the air electro-rock of MGMT along with a light, knowing nod towards Beck Hansen and The Flaming Lips. Imagine The Beach Boys‘ close harmonies trapped in a jar, distilled into one voice, and mixed with a measure of Hot Chip, Damon Albarn‘s The Good The Bad and The Queen and just a dash of Vampire Weekend.

‘Evil Friends’ is a wonderfully cohesive work, made up of relatively short tracks which work best when listened to as a whole record, rather than being filleted or rearranged in any way; songs that seem to melt into one another, creating a patchwork quilt of feeling more than a random collection of tunes.

The strangely anthemic opener, ‘Plastic Soldiers‘, sounds like three songs cut and shut into one, and more or less sets the precedence for the entire record; a beautifully crazy trifle of hands in the air cerebral pop, beginning with maudlin acoustic guitar underpinned by a simple three note keyboard refrain and lyrics that are heavily pregnant with an almost Buddhist like existentialism, before the song fades off with a return to the initial keyboard line, and a ghostly swell of wordless backing vocals.

Then, when all seems lost, a mere vignette grows into a full blooded song; the guitar reignites, joined by a chugging drum pattern, and the vocals return, as if heralding an almost entirely different track.

Another little gem in this treasure trove is ‘Atomic Man‘, a rocky little stomper about someone taking on a near Doctor Manhattan like persona in the immediate aftermath of the ending of a relationship, and all over a steady, shifting bed of fuzz guitar, bombastic drumming, plinkey keyboard doodles, choral like backing vocals, soulful piano, and a suitable ending, which sees the destruction of our vocal hero.

In ‘Holy Roller (Hallelujah)‘, John Gourley moves from tripping adeptly across verses to reaching the dizzying heights of something resembling the love child of Janis Joplin and an evangelist preacher, while ‘Smile‘ brings the whole meandering sonic rollercoaster to a pleasing conclusion; a light, acoustic, reflective tune, which includes intervals of whistling, ‘I Am The Walrus‘ style drumming, and cannibalised sections of ‘Plastic Soldiers’, all brought to closure by dualling guitars and dotted with a last cymbal tap as the absolute full stop to the record.

Lyrically, one questions whether the tunes on this record are the product of someone going through a bit of a Saturn Return like experience  – wading head-first along the road to Damascus and burying all their emotions in catchy, clever and often surreal lyrics delivered via Gourley’s dynamic voice.

The vocals stretch and caress the lyrics, sometimes with a sense of urgency and almost bitter, defeatist resignation aboard wee technicolor tunes that boast an overall sound that is a deceptive carnival of bittersweet happiness, all glazed by Danger Mouse’s gentle application of sunshine sonic brush strokes.

It all results in a wonderful state of bewilderment once the last note has been played; an interesting, complex and undoubtedly entertaining record, with catchy songs that collectively trigger off a multitude of conflicting emotions – often at the same time, ranging from the euphoric to light trepidation, from cynicism to odd feelings of melancholy, and ultimately a lasting sense of hope and wonder.

(Sam Slattery)

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