With its second full-length album, Church Mouth, the Portland, Ore.-by-way-of-Alaska group blends gorgeous melodies with crackling hard rock, psychedelic-expressionist lyrics and an uninhibited art-school sensitivity. As the band conjures ever-intriguing hybrids of rock, pop and alternative music, guitarist-singer-songwriter John Baldwin Gourley uses his beautiful choirboy-like tenor to croon and howl as if he were Robert Plant's younger American cousin.
Portugal. The Man will play on Thursday, April 24, at the Rialto Theatre, sandwiched between headliner Minus the Bear and The Big Sleep.
"We've been around a few years," said Gourley in a recent cell-phone interview. "But until now, we only played, like, random shows. This tour with these bands, both of which we respect a great deal, is really a big step for us."
Rising from the ashes of the band Anatomy of a Ghost, Portugal. The Man hit the musical scene just three years ago.
In early 2006, Fearless Records released the band's debut album, Waiter: "You Vultures!" Roughly within a year, that record was followed by the well-regarded EPs Devil Say I, I Say Air and It's Complicated Being a Wizard. The extraordinary Church Mouth emerged last summer to critical acclaim.
The group's first album was made by Gourley and a longtime collaborator, bassist Zachary Scott Carothers, also a veteran of Anatomy of a Ghost. For that recording, the group's third member was a drum machine.
When they entered the studio to begin Church Mouth, Portugal. The Man became a trio with a flesh-and-blood drummer, Jason Sechrist. Playing keyboards was Ryan Neighbors, who has since become the band's fourth member.
"There were a lot of electronics and programmed stuff on Waiter: 'You Vultures!' including the drum machine and sampling. We really wanted to give Church Mouth this more moody, blues sound, and have it feel more organic," Gourley said.
Already, the band--the members are all in their early-to-mid-20s--has recorded a new full-length CD that awaits release, he added.
While Portugal. The Man's dense songs defy the old-school lyrical analysis that Rolling Stone might train on the latest album by Bruce Springsteen or Kelly Clarkson, neither are Gourley's lyrics completely abstract, either.
"I have the hardest time making any sense. Zach has known me ever since we went to high school together, and he gets it every time. But when I try to explain my songs to someone, I think that to me, it all seemed to make sense the day I wrote it. Then it becomes something else. I mean, I love the Beatles; and if I could write straightforward songs like that, I would."
It's clear, though, that Gourley's songwriting addresses--albeit elliptically--such weighty concerns as global politics, interpersonal relationships, organized religion and the hypocrisies associated with such.
For instance, in the stinging blues-rock number "Children," Gourley seems to express skepticism for fundamentalist Christianity. He sings, "I'm headin' down down down / down to the river 'cause I don't believe in medicine."
"A lot of my lyrics are social commentary. I could sit pretty much all day and every waking moment, watching life go by and commenting on it. I grew up in a really small town in Alaska, and my dad moved around a lot. He built hotels for Princess Tours. ... So I was alone a lot of the time as a kid, and I just observed the world around me."
Even seemingly innocuous occurrences seemed momentous to the young Gourley, he said.
"I had a friend growing up who actually is part of the reason I stared playing music; we played music together. But his family was really religious. His parents would read the Book of Revelation to him before he went to bed, and he had this aunt who was this huge conspiracy nut. He was never religious at all, but one day, it just changed. He started telling me I was going to hell. That sort of overnight transformation made a large impact on me."
Perhaps out of journalistic necessity, or simple curiosity, I ask Gourley if there really is a period after the first word in his band's name.
"Yes, there is a period in the name. I can't really tell you why. Just like everything we do, it made perfect sense at the time. Then, later, when people ask where something came from, we can't really remember what we meant with that."