(French Kiss; 2011)
By Conrad Amenta | 10 October 2011
In the words of one of our esteemed staff, “I like this more than I want to.”
That’s completely fair, because the Drums are easy stand-ins for whatever it is about popular indie music we want to backlash against: referencing classic music without necessarily even getting it right, melodrama and sincerity that doesn’t easily snap fit with our cynicism, an emphasis on style over subject matter, and having spent their time in the style-manufacturing hopper that is the major labels’ attempt to exploit indie rock to the fullest. You’ll still hear the Factory catalogue when you listen to Portamento, but obviously you won’t find yourself as surprised as you were the first time you heard Morrissey reach a punch line, won’t find these simple, New Order-lite arrangements quite as spontaneous and intuitive. If you have any interest in distinguishing between bands who want to create music in the spirit of something rather than creating a reasonable facsimile of same, the Drums are your straw man, your scapegoat, your lesser-than. What Portamento suggests, though, is how horribly tall an order it is to expect that of anyone.
That’s because despite all of the intangibles working against them, there is absolutely no denying that the front half of Portamento is just fucking great. I tried to deny it; I couldn’t. It’s unstoppably good, in the way that really catchy pop music tends to be. There are a few tracks elsewhere so obnoxious and whiny that they allow a return to bashing, but how can I do anything but concentrate on the span of twenty-odd minutes that is outright among the most listenable of 2011? There are moments when I think that this album transcends itself, almost as an act of will, from the shadow-boxing blueprint for which it will (perhaps rightfully) be vilified to a strata of records we find, somehow, illogically, deeply satisfying. It’s not illuminating anything about style or genre we didn’t already know. It’s not changing the way you vote. There’s nothing here of what I write about when I write about music I consider deeply resonant and relevant. And yet I’ve had this on repeat for days. This thing is irritatingly good.
It seems that to put the Drums on a year-end list would be to undermine all that we critics demand of our artists, which, in a nutshell, is that they surprise us. And if that’s the baseline, then the Drums fail to even elaborate too much on their 2010 too-cute-for-tolerance self-titled debut. Portamento adds some keyboard and seems more depressed about itself, but the Drums remain in the same sandbox. Jonathan Pierce still keens with a sort-of-charisma that you’ll either find intoxicating or grating (and it’s both), still writes stunted lyrics about a relationship that sounds awful to be in and is often no fun to hear described (even Pierce laments, on the otherwise wonderful “Hard to Love”: “And I don’t know why / After all this time / Every single song I sing is about you”). Pierce, the heart and soul of an otherwise cookie-cutter outfit, still does a lot of moaning and vamping that, when it fails (“Please Don’t Leave”), fails hard. The skin almost crawls to hear him harp on about how “I try so hard” in “Days.” When paired with the single-note picking, the root-note bass, the barely-existent drums (aside: there has perhaps never been a less appropriately named band), you have to ask yourself how the Drums can possibly be considered anything but the paltry sum of some thin-ass parts.
So let’s distinguish between rating the band, which I don’t think have produced much very good music and I have doubts will do so in the years to come, and Portamento, which is absolutely the best thing they’ve ever done. Call it kismet, or an alignment of the planets, or a happy accident: Pierce’s vocal melodies are inspired, charismatic, and knowing; the arrangements are economical and effective; the sudden melodic thrust of “Book of Revelation” into its chorus; the endlessly listenable “Money”; the fact that there’s very, very little separating “What You Were” from the apparently critically unimpeachable Bradford Cox’s music. Any of the first six songs here could slay a dance floor so long as said floor was made up of at least 40% adorable indie moppets. Portamento feels somehow fated to be on your stereo. You don’t even have to like the Drums to make it so.
There it is, one of the most backhanded reviews I’ve ever written, and somehow Portamento is snuggled amidst St. Vincent and Braids and Tim Hecker and Colin Stetson on my year-end list. The band has my attention now, and it won’t be so easy next time to write them off as just another cross-promotional rehash of independent music’s past glories. Lord help us all.