Portugal. The Man

Waiter: "You Vultures!"

(Fearless; 2006)

By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007

So the first great album of the year comes from a band with a middle finger towards the conventions of band names and album titles. Rather, make that nearly every convention one would typically apply to pop. PTM, as I’ll call them in the interest of grammatical convenience, have finessed the fracture in their skewed pop to perfection. The group lays wonderful sonic surprises around the sharp corners of every one of their tracks like joy mines. Not like, twee mines, but like, rousing rock mines. And every time one smacks you in the face you whirl around and want some more.

The sheer versatility of these musicians is phenomenal. Imagine the dynamic prowess of Wolf Parade in a pop-rock package constantly in the process of blooming. If it’s a complicated description, then it suits the remarkable complexity of these tracks. Rarely does the kind of detail and orchestration involved in an album like this coincide so nicely with such eminent accessibility and peerless production. Even better, the band occupy a fascinating lyrical space that evenly balances abstract esotericism and vivid imagery. So basically the sum of all of these parts – lyricism, musicianship, production, and energy – is a pretty outrageously good whole.

“Picking highlights is hard” – the cliché isn’t a cliché at all when it comes to Waiter: “You Vultures”. Not as a function of similarity between songs or pacing, but precisely because the depth of the variegation that the band achieves while maintaining an unfaltering standard of songwriting is magnificent. In fact, the only readily apparent similarity between the group’s tracks is its capacity for stitching together seamless passages and suites into terrific pop patchworks.

The difference between PTM’s patchwork ethic and that of artists like Architecture in Helsinki is a crucial one; rather than joyously toss ideas together willy-nilly, PTM use their patchwork as a cohesive method of fleshing out evident songwriting ideas that each piece participates in (think of Andrew Bird’s compositions). This approach yields gold. The punk chord couplets that dominate the first bars of “Marching with 6” are peeled away in the track’s third patch to reveal the terrific bass lead that anchors the track’s rhythm. The fifth patch is an ingenious math-obsessed breakdown that doesn’t make its technical focus obnoxious, but rather connects both with the first and third patches, and incorporates the technical precision of the second and fourth patch guitar work to create a riveting semblance of a bridge. It probably doesn’t bear mentioning that “Marching with 6” is not even the most technically skilled piece of the bunch.

But perhaps more interesting than the raw talent behind the refined gems is the variation of tools PTM so able employ in that refining process. In “Elephants,” the group transitions from a heavily reverbed spy-western guitar lead and spare, beautiful vocals into a fleshed out, bass-led passage complemented by echo-handclaps-as-percussion. Then the song’s excellent melody is swamped in the first instances of typical drumming (albeit via a superb drum fill), and yields its guitars for a few bars of sublime keyboard decorations.

As if the group was stalwart about anticipating any nagging points, it not only switches rhythmic intensity in the middle of songs, but makes sure to mimic the variation between entire tracks as well. The difference between the far more reserved “How the Leopard Got its Spots” and the stampeding “Chicago” is remarkable (though, ingeniously, the group utterly stops the stampede in its tracks with a gorgeous spare keyboarded bridge, which is then modified into a breathtaking coda following another verse iteration).

As for the group’s melodic prowess, it’s formidable. Nary a song isn’t possessed of at least two sterling melodies, and their hooks accomplish a great deal more than your average rock riff, focusing on clean figures as well as sheer power. Translation: a remarkable mastery of the art of melding the deeply intellectual with the heavily visceral.

Not to gush, but I can’t pinpoint a single significant weakness in the entire album. It’s as if the group heard At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command and decided to three-up it with a more pop-oriented focus, better production, and more coherence. Can it possibly be that fantastic? I’ll just say this: as far as I’m concerned, I’ve artificially lowered what I really believe the rating for Waiter: “You Vultures!” should be, to account for any jadedness with it that might occur after, oh, a 50th listen or so. Because I’ll let time try to take its toll, but right now (after a dozen listens or so) the word that comes to mind most readily is “flawless.”