The 10 Best Local Rock Albums of the Decade
By Bollard staff and contributors
Lists like this invariably provoke howls of indignation from the groupies, girlfriends, nannas and other partisans of bands that didn’t make the cut — not to mention the icy stares of the musicians themselves as they wash your pint glass or take your coffee money.
So before The Bollard honors the 10 Best Local Rock Albums of the Decade, let’s take a moment to explain the qualifications and judging.
To qualify for this award (non-paying gig and cheap plaque not included), an album must have been released between January 1, 2000 and the present by musicians who live, play and record in and around Portland — the epicenter of our rocky state.
The Bollard consulted scores of local DJs, booking agents, sound guys and fans to get nominations and evaluate them this past November. In addition, staff tackled the tower of review copies that have accumulated in the office over the years and scoured the local music shelves at community radio station WMPG in search of overlooked nuggets.
This research proves Portland has been home to more than its fair share of polished rock acts capable of aping the sounds popular on modern rock radio. Though expertly produced and attractively packaged, these records leave us cold.
To be among the best local releases, an album must not only rock, but do so in an original fashion. It has to have character, individuality. It should sound like Portland rock, not corporate schlock.
Which begs the question, What does Portland rock sound like?
Most rock groups around here are either heavy, rootsy, weird, or some combination thereof.
The heavy bands in town these days are either musical descendents of the Hard Rock Gods who ruled the scene in the ’90s (e.g. Twisted Roots, Rotors to Rust), or they are Twisted Roots and Rotors to Rust (both are still gigging, albeit less frequently). Portland continues to harbor a strong metal scene, and Ocean has single-handedly put our metropolis on the doom-metal map.
Must be the long winters.
Second to Portland’s rock scene in terms of fans, acts and overall vibrancy is its roots-music scene: bluegrass, blues, old-time country, folk, reggae, and rockabilly. These influences have been seeping into our local rock like subterranean streams, forming fine bands like the ska-rock hybrid Rustic Overtones and the Stonesy Americana outfit The Coming Grass.
There’s something in that water. How else to explain the strangeness so much local rock exhibits? Cerberus Shoal concocted its avant-garde albums in a house nestled among the oil tanks of South Portland. Eggbot hatched the excellent Father’s Day in a tidal wetland behind a SoPo strip mall. The three geek-geniuses of Confusatron lived for years between a gas station and the first property profiled in That’s My Dump!. Maybe we should call this stuff “Superfund Rock.”
So here it is: the best rock produced in Portland so far this century. We hope you find this list enlightening and enjoyable. And if you want to argue about it, all the better. In a town filthy with cover bands and karaoke, where rock groups playing original music are lucky to cajole a dozen drinking buddies to attend their CD release show, spirited debate would at least show that somebody gives a shit.
— Chris Busby
Note: This list is arranged by order of rockingness, not overall excellence. Entries were written by Chris Busby, based on staff and contributor feedback.
Covered in Bees — Portland Death Punk Vol 1: Portland is for Lovers
Entertainment Experiment, 2005
Click to hear: “Spiderlady“
Five years ago, Covered in Bees struck the Portland rock scene like a bolt of lightening, and damned if the ground isn’t still buzzing with the charge.
The Bees are a punk-metal supergroup. Guitarist/backing screamer Doug Porter is a third of the jaw-dropping post-metal combo Confusatron. His brother, Ed, anchors the mighty Pigboat, and ex-Eggbot drummer Tristan Gallagher doubles as the lead singer and shredder in Man-Witch. A mild-mannered accounting major by day, on stage Bees frontman Kevin “Boo” Leavitt is like a scary-funny cross between Johnny Rotten and John Belushi.
Together, this combination is bionic. The Bees are “better, stronger, faster” than every other band around. Vol. 1, their first full-length, established their greatness. Vol. 2, released two years later, solidified it. Last year’s 24 Hour Album showed they can pull it all off in a single day (while goofing around half the time).
Covered in Bees is both ridiculously talented and ridiculous. They write songs about horror-comic characters like Swampman, Spiderlady, and The Black Grimace (evil twin of the McDonaldland dufus). There’s a track on this album called “Bloodbath and Beyond.” The humor somehow manages to coexist with the brutal music that delivers it, full of air-guitar-hero riffs, breakneck start-stop tempos, and catchy holler-along choruses.
Welcome to the top of the Portland rock pile.
Eldemur Krimm — Dirigo
Yogsothoth Records, 2003
Click to hear: “Elephant Gun“
Holy Christ, this record rocks! Six years have done nothing to diminish the power and drive of this album, and it’s doubtful another 16 or 60 will dent its rough diamond core. Dirigo is truly timeless.
Krimm achieved this by digging deep into the foundation of the genre in search of the bluesy sludge beneath. They then refined and amplified this swampy ooze until it hardened into slabs like “Elephant Gun,” “Black Fog,” “Chopper,” “Dog Star” and “Crash.”
Krimm was led by Fred Dodge, a towering figure who looks like a biker-gang Gandalf, bellows in a gravelly baritone, and plays guitar like he’s demon-possessed. Bassist Jason Marshall held down the low end, drummer Stefen Samuels provided the percussive ammo, and Neil Collins doubled the guitar assault on this album.
It was a testament to Krimm’s broad appeal that when Collins left to sail the hemisphere, ace rockabilly six-stringer Matt Robbins of King Memphis stepped in for a time to fill the void. (Collins’ involvement was a testament to the same — he’d played in the indie-pop group Lincolnville prior to putting his heavy rock-socks on.)
Sadly, Krimm disbanded last year with its sophomore release, Trainwreck on a Ship, in the can but unreleased. The handful of tracks that have surfaced on its MySpace page (myspace.com/eldemurkrimm) show that the band was broadening its sonic palate but had lost none of its edge. (For an enlightening example of Krimm’s previously unheard acoustic side, check out “Burned-Out Kitchen” in the July 30, 2007 edition of “The Online Underground.”)
There are rumors that Dodge is assembling a new version of Krimm from his compound somewhere in rural Maine. We hope he reemerges soon.
Honey Clouds — Fall on the Honey Clouds
Peapod Recordings, 2009
Click to hear: “Milkweed”
Ron Harrity and Trey Hughes first made a splash around here as the guitar-and-vocal front half of the rootsy/jangly Harpswell Sound. Between ’03 and ’06, Harpswell Sound released an EP and two full-lengths, the second of which, Let’s Go Anyway, caught the ear of legendary indie-rock musician and producer Kramer, who mixed, mastered, and added Hammond B-3 to the album.
Harpswell could rock, but they tended to plod through the more countrified numbers, and there was a certain muddiness to the music, thickened by Hughes’ slow and low delivery. When Hughes and Harrity formed Honey Clouds in 2007, it gave their sound a welcome gust of fresh air.
This was partly due to the lineup change. Harpswell drummer Mike Dank and bassist Kris Day are both well-seasoned, professional musicians. Honey Clouds bassist Mandy Wheeler and drummer Sean Wilkinson (a co-founder and former art director of The Bollard) are relatively inexperienced, but bring an amateur’s exuberance to the group.
The band was so excited about its new material that it released most of these tunes recorded live in their practice space as The Earl Grey Demos. The studio versions retained the energy of those sessions and made the songs even stronger.
There’s a crispness and crackle to Honey Clouds that Harpswell Sound never had. A couple numbers drag a bit (“Made Enough Sense,” “Reception”), but others have the bash and crash of raw punk (“Milkweed,” “Hammock”). Here’s hoping Honey Clouds keeps blowing us away.
Cult Maze — The Ice Arena
Click to hear: “You Need to Know How to Rush”
That’s the number of notes in the labyrinthine guitar line that graces Cult Maze’s “You Need to Know How to Rush” (as counted by indie-rock radio host and writer David Pence, who reviewed The Ice Arena in The Bollard back in ’06). That astoundingly complex hook, played twice in succession over insistent drums and burbling bass, embodies much of what made this band brilliant.
Cult Maze crafted inventive prog-pop songs that rock. Like the almost anthemic guitar line in “You Need to Know,” their angular melodies meander into your head and loiter there for days, like hipsters smoking on your mental front step who are too cool to kick off.
The Ice Arena is the first of the two great records Cult Maze released before the quartet went on “indefinite hiatus” in early 2008. (Their sophomore/swansong album, 35, 36, came out in ’07.) Its appearance heralded the Era of Indie-Rock Enlightenment that’s still underway in Portland, led in part by bands formed by pieces of the splintered group.
Jay Lobley, Cult Maze’s singer, guitarist and principal songwriter, has since formed Metal Feathers, a slightly more straightforward indie-rock four-piece that includes former Diamond Sharp leader Jason Rogers on bass. Joshua Loring — who joined Cult Maze after Aaron Hautula of Satellite Lot, the bassist on Ice Arena, left — has gone on to form Brenda (with Cult Maze keyboardist Peet Chamberlain) and BOXY (with drummer Graeme K., whose Hidden Beast was one of 2007’s best albums).
Groups like Gully, Huak, and The RattleSnakes — all featured in Loring’s new photography/music project, Treble Treble, which takes its name from a Cult Maze song — keep writing smart, unconventional songs undoubtedly inspired by the achievement that was The Ice Arena. Though Cult Maze is deceased, the local indie-rock scene has never been livelier.
Dead End Armory — Hope You’re Good
Peapod Recordings, 2008
Click to hear: “I Hold“
“You wear the ocean so well around your waist.”
So begins one of the most powerfully emotional albums ever produced in Portland, Dead End Armory’s Hope You’re Good.
The argument against including this record among the best of the past decade is that it’s just too damn depressing. With the exception of the surreal lyrics in “Chasing Systems,” it’s painfully obvious the other seven songs are about a devastating breakup. If you’re not in the mood to have those memories cattle-prodded back to life, then Hope You’re Good will continue to collect dust on your CD shelf.
That said, the sadness that pervades the lyrics is coupled with cathartic storms of guitar that can wash the rage away. Play at top volume for maximum effect — outside your ex’s bedroom window, if necessary.
The soul of the band is singer/guitarist Wesley Hartley, a transplant from Texas who brought his distinctive twisting twang of a voice north several years ago. Mike O’Connor also plays guitar, Chris DiBiasio is on drums, Leslie Deane played bass and Steven Williams added backing vocals on these recordings, which may be the band’s last — their current status is up in the air.
Honey Clouds guitarist Ron Harrity, who recorded and mixed Hope You’re Good (and released it on his Peapod Recordings label), gave the album a distinct, cohesive atmosphere. During the lulls, Hartley’s lonesome cowboy voice sounds intimately close, and when the gales of Crazy Horse guitar blow in, the sonic space expands to just barely contain them.
A close contender for this list was The Baltic Sea’s Through Scenic Heights and Days Regrets, also released last year. That album has a similar dynamism and emotive power, and is more sonically rich that Hope. However, The Baltic Sea’s detached, prog/post-rock approach is less accessible and immediate than Dead End Armory’s caterwauling record. By the end of Scenic Heights, you look back in amazement; by the end of Hope, you’re ready to move on.
Darien Brahms — Green Valentine
Cornmeal Records, 2003
Click to hear: “St. Joan”
Sure, Darien Brahms can sing a heartbreaking ballad like “Beautiful Bridge” from last year’s masterful Number 4, and she can play the campy Latin-lounge chanteuse, as she did so well on The Munjoy Hill Society’s Bon Voyage back in 2000. But there’s a gruffness to Brahms’ gorgeous voice that’s all rock, and on 2003’s Green Valentine, she
really let it rip.
Take the opener, “St. Joan,” in which Brahms growls lyrics in praise of the sword-wielding French warrior-saint who “made the boys run and hide.” “You treat me just like one of your broken promises,” she snarls two tracks later on “Take You On.” “So Low” is prettied up a bit by Sara Cox’s soulful vocals in the chorus, and “Everyone” is leavened by a beautiful bridge (of a different sort) toward the end, but both are unapologetically rough rockers. The closer, “Wicked,” builds into a rave-up on the back of Brahms’ double-tracked guitar.
Ever eclectic, Brahms slips songs in several different styles between the rock numbers, like the loping pop nugget “Up! Periscope,” the countrified title cut, and “No Place Like You,” an enchanting piece of nightclub jazz on which Brahms, backed by the MHS band, croons, “the yards on Munjoy Hill / Atlantic Ocean still / there’s beauty in all these spaces but there’s no place like you.”
Right back at ya, Darien.
Spouse — Love Can’t Save This Love
Pigeon Records, 2002
Click to hear: “Catch 22“
Jose Ayerve, the organizing force behind the evolving project that is Spouse, is a rock star. Spouse’s record sales haven’t given the group stardom status, and off stage, Ayerve’s humble, sweetheart personality is the antithesis of the stereotypical rock-star ’tude. But on stage, it’s obvious Ayerve’s got it -– the confidence, control and charisma the genre’s best frontmen possess.
Combine this quality with the ability to write intelligent indie-rock and you get a great album like Love Can’t Save This Love. (Need I mention he can do this in two languages?)
Spouse’s debut, 2000’s Nozomi, is stellar, but its 14 tracks feel thrown together, like a collection of all the material the group had before their first foray into the studio. Love is much more cohesive, 11 songs about lost love and half-forgotten friends set in bars and dance clubs and lonely apartments.
The music – most of it written collectively by Ayerve and the two men and two women in the band at the time – is nuanced and sophisticated. Each song follows its own logic, invents its own formula and resolves itself in an original way.
“Catch 22” is a notable example of Spouse’s smarts and versatility. The lyric “You can’t believe I was the one who got away / I can’t believe I was the one who had to stay” sums up a breakup so elegantly that every other lyricist who hears it must slap their forehead and wonder aloud, Why didn’t I come up with that? The electric, rock version, played live at the time and released as a single, is fantastic. The version on Love, slower and inflected with Michal Merenda’s banjo, is, implausibly, just as good.
This album will always be associated with The Skinny, the groundbreaking Portland venue where Ayerve tended bar and whose owners, John and Mellow Lomba, are pictured kissing on its cover. The club has since closed, and no other venue has yet matched the excellent mix of music it offered. Likewise, Spouse continues to release very good records, but none as perfect as Love.
Spencer Albee — Frankenstein presents… The Popsicko Vol. 1
FPFC Productions, 2000
Click to hear: “I’m Breathing“
Pop, like milk, is best served and consumed fresh. Of all the albums Spencer Albee’s released this decade (and there’ve been many, under nearly as many guises), his 2000 solo debut is still the freshest and most refreshing.
The McCartneyesque hooks Albee’s now renowned for arrived like a pleasant surprise 10 years ago. He was still playing keyboards with Rustic Overtones at the time — a band whose signature albums, Long Division and Rooms By the Hour, came out in the ’90s — and few knew he was capable of making a record like this.
Like Stevie Wonder on his masterworks of the ’70s, Albee plays nearly all the instruments himself, wrote almost everything (a Beatles cover excepted) and co-produced Frankenstein. Guest contributors include co-producer/engineer Jim Begley (drums on three tracks), Eggbot (coronet on two songs), and Overtone horn players Ryan Zoidis and Dave Noyes.
Don’t let the “pop” tag fool ya. This record’s got rock to spare. Tracks like “Beer Goggles,” “Baxter,” “The Porno Song” and “The Final Factor” provide meaty guitar to balance the lighter, keyboard-based fare. Subsequent Albee albums have rocked harder (Rocktopus’ Something Fierce, As Fast As’ Open Letter to the Damned), but Frankenstein got the pop-rock mix just right, and it has some of the best compositions Albee’s ever penned, like the opener “I’m Breathing.”
Albee’s supposedly re-releasing all his solo albums (with the exception of the 2006 Octone Records release Open Letter) this month for the low, low price of about $12. The opportunity to hear even this one long-out-of-print record makes that a fair price.
The Ponys (Phantom Buffalo) — ShiShiMuMu
Time-Lag Records, 2002
Click to hear: “A Hilly Town“
If there’s a local rock album less than a decade old that deserves to be called classic, this is it.
Phantom Buffalo’s mind-blowing double-vinyl debut, released before the band was compelled to change its name from The Ponys (the moniker of a previously established rock band in Chicago), is the Holy Grail of Portland indie-rock. Blessed indeed are those who own one of the 600 limited-edition pressings. (I know someone who picked up a copy in a Portland record shop solely on the strength of the album art and then fell in love with the music – she was living in Portland, Oregon at the time!)
At least half a dozen songs on ShiShiMuMu are required listening for anyone who gives a damn about local music: “A Hilly Town,” “Wilamena,” “Anywhere With Oxygen,” and the entirety of Side D, from “Ask Your Grandmother” to “Cheer Up My Man.”
Bouncy, psychedelic, and catchier than the common cold, the songs in this sprawling collection are treasures. The innocence of the subject matter -– friendly insects, ’60 pop, kids “making out by the mailbox / collecting golf balls in their socks” – is matched by the sweetness of singer/guitarist Jonathan Balzano-Brookes’ unselfconscious falsetto.
Yet this is not simple music. The tracks on ShiShi are unpredictable, thick with instrumentation, long and involved (nearly half of its dozen tunes reach or exceed the five-minute mark).
The band’s output had been sparse since this album’s release, but the backlog of material is finally seeing daylight. The full-length Take to the Trees arrived in 2008, sporting a bunch of songs they’ve been playing live for years (e.g. “Mrs. Connelly” and “Be the Boss”). Another solid LP, Cement Postcard With Owl Colours, is finished and has been posted in its entirety on the band’s Web site (phantombuffalo.net) in anticipation of its imminent release on CD.
Keep ’em comin’, fellas!
Satellite Lot — Second Summer
Click to hear: “Hold Your Fire”
Satellite Lot was Portland’s Steely Dan – a band comprised of two guys, Aaron Hautala and Casey McCurry, who enlisted numerous talented players to record finely crafted songs in a variety of genres, but who rarely took to the stage. (We’re talkin’ ’70s Dan, not the touring Greatest Hits Revue of today.)
The first of their two albums, Second Summer, hopscotches from jangle-pop (“That Wasn’t Me”) to indie-rock (“All Defenses Down”) to punk (“Blessed With a Curse”) to Springsteen (“Hold Your Fire”) to ballads (“First Day,” “Long Lost Love”) to ’80s electro-dance music (“Double Yellow Lines”), before winding down with a political lament (“In Protest”) and the haunting, elegiac closer “By Lantern Light,” featuring Sydney Bourke (now of Marie Stella) on vocals.
Each song inhabits its own little world. There are ingenious musical touches and striking lyrics throughout (e.g. “Did you know I break apart when a stranger says your name?” from “First Day”). The follow-up, 2007’s Sleepwalk in a Burning Building, was equally well done, but almost entirely ’80s in approach. Second Summer has something for everyone.
Hautala (son of best-selling horror author Rick Hautala) resides in Austin these days, and prospects for a reunion seem slim, but Second Summer continues to delight years after its release.