With a name like American Ghetto, you might expect the fifth studio album from Portland, Oregon’s Portugal The Man to be a raw, relentless collection of indie rock tunes, maybe even a little rough around the edges. Right? Glance at the tracklist—the individual titles evoke appropriately gritty images (“The Dead Dog”, “The Pushers Party”, “When the War Ends”)—and the album even commences with a little dirt: a dusty, stuttering drum kit cracking and popping like a random hip-hop sample from some forgotten soul record withering in your uncle’s attic.
It doesn’t take long, though, to figure out what kind of record this really is. From frontman John Baldwin Gourley’s very first vocal, the band establishes a firm, unflinching template of polished, stripped-down, mildly psychedelic indie/soul that couldn’t be further from the grittiness the titles imply.
This doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise. 2009’s The Satanic Satanist occupies a similar sonic space, infusing elements of classic soul and pop into their established brand of lightly eclectic and experimental rock. The description sounds refreshing. On that album, they created songs big on charm, but they were ultimately short on personality. Tracks like “Work All Day” and “Lovers in Love” had big hooks, but the flat production robbed the tracks of creative spark. It was safe, easy to digest music that was easy to like, hard to hate, but even more difficult to love.
American Ghetto continues this streak of inoffensiveness. Once again, the problems lie not within the songs themselves—Gourley’s voice, while slightly anonymous, has its subtle charms, and the melodies, when they stick, are hard to pry from your brain. Opener “The Dead Dog” features a throbbing chorus of psychedelic guitars that interlocks seamlessly with the descending, minor key chord progression and the soulful plea,“We had ourselves a time!” The stickiest tune is “All My People”, a gorgeous and quietly funky late-night jam nicely supported by guest vocalist Zoe Manville’s airy harmonies. When Gourley smoothly croons in the chorus, “Keep your ha-aaa-ands by your side!”, he could be referencing a police standoff, but in the groovy context, it sounds more like a plea of sexual resistance from an intoxicated lover.
The album, like much of the band’s recent work, sounds determinedly low-key. This safe, cooly-collected vibe enhances the fact that this is a consistent, professional, affable piece of work, written and performed by solid musicians. At the same time, this cozy environment of safety is also the disc’s biggest weakness. This is often frustrating since a little sloppiness in the production or downright experimental indulgence would have at least given a refreshing chance of pace.
“Break”, a short reprise of the opening track, could have been a place to stretch out instrumentally and perhaps “get their Flaming Lips on”, but it turns out to be nothing more than a pointless attempt at quintessential psychedelic album filler. “1000 Years”, with its overly-processed guitars and programmed drums, feels like an eternity but lasts only four minutes. Tracks like “The Pushers Party” and “Fantastic Pace” (which randomly erupts into a 1990s Death Row hip-hop instrumental à la “California Love”) are muted by the placid, heartless, downright boring production, which neuters the songs of any potential dynamics or sonic surprises. Once the final stomps of the closing “When the War Ends” have long faded, the melodies of each song have completely bled into each other, making individual moments difficult to recall, let alone replay in your head.
Perhaps the album’s timing plays a part in its lack of impact. Released only eight months after its predecessor, American Ghetto continues the band’s streak of nearly unmatched prolificacy, as they have released five full-length studio albums since 2006, not including EPs, of which they have released five. One has to admire the band’s determination, but unless one of your songwriters’ last names ends in “ennon” or “cCartney”, it’s a little difficult to pull off with consistency. And hell, outside of the Beatles, even their discographies aren’t invincible. More importantly, where earlier albums differed slightly from one to the next (the emo and progressive influences of 2006’s Waiter: You Vultures! to the more mature, experimental sound of 2008’s Censored Colors), they have for the first time failed to bring anything new to the table.
On American Ghetto, the band attempts to meld mild psychedelia, pop, funk, and soul into a single, easy-to-digest package, but the songs are rarely trippy, catchy, funky, or soulful enough to leave a long-lasting impression on any of those individual levels. In attempting to continue their innocuous streak of solidity, Portugal The Man have never sounded so objectionable.