The best music to come out of Portland this year probably won’t be found on next year’s Greetings From Area Code 207 compilation. Several of this year’s highlights have a distinctly made-at-home feel, with stickers placed directly onto CDRs and photocopied covers. A few others fall outside of the range of genres the GFAC series usually includes (most notably, all the solid hip-hop releases from the Milled Pavement label). There were also plenty of releases that sound like works in progress — this bodes extremely well for next year’s crop of albums.
Click to hear: “I Got Love”
The best of the CDR bunch is easily Diamond Sharp’s self-titled debut. Released this summer on the brand new Hide and Seek Records label, the Diamond SharpEP raises the bar almost hopelessly high for aspiring pop musicians.
Jason Rogers, the guy who wears the pants in this band, crafts the kind of songs you’ll find yourself stuck on for days. Really, they have it all: hand claps, sing-along choruses, rich multi-tracked vocals and fantastic guitar hooks. You can hear a little bit of Pavement here and there (in fact, unless I’m mistaken, the name Diamond Sharp comes from a Pavement song), as well as hints of The Kinks, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Beach Boys and less-affected moments of The Decemberists. The standout hit “I Got Love” actually manages to synthesize all these influences into one cohesive whole without sounding the least bit derivative or tired.
The production and arrangements on this EP are surprising throughout. Keyboards suddenly appear, then fade out just as quickly; backwards guitar sounds briefly fill empty space; Rogers’ voice doubles and triples on itself. Couple this with the absurdly great songwriting and you have an album that is nothing less than fantastic. At the risk of becoming too heavy-handed with the superlatives, let me say that I have never given a local album as much listening time as I’ve devoted to this disc. [Full disclosure: I liked this record so much I’ve since arranged to play some gigs with Diamond Sharp sharing the bill.]
This year, accolades should also go to Milled Pavement. The label has proven itself to be smart, organized and productive. Even the most cursory glance at their Web site and catalog is enough to impress. Milled Pavement gave us finely polished releases from JD Walker, Moshe, and A-Frame this year. But the disc that really captured my attention was Brzowski’s full-length album, Mary Shelly Overdrive.
Mary Shelly Overdrive clocks in at a hearty 73 minutes, and it’s very, very good throughout. Brzowski’s delivery is compact, aggressive and smart. His lyrics flow by so quickly it can take several listens to fully understand what he’s saying, but the end result is always worth the effort. There’s something that feels genuine and weighty to his lyrical content, and this makes the frantic pace of its delivery all the more exciting once you decode it. Brzowski’s words rest on and play off Agent8’s deft production. The beats are always exceptionally well-built. Should you feel like poking your head inside a track and looking around, there’s plenty to see, but the intricately nuanced textures never overwhelm the main focus.
Speaking of finely nuanced production, far and away the best sound on any release from 2005 is to be found on Satellite Lot’s long-awaited debut, Second Summer. Every sonic frequency on this dense album is perfectly mixed; each settled into its right place. Casey McCurry and Aaron Hautula labored for an almost immeasurable duration on this gem, and their efforts are plainly visible. Add to that the extra polish of Gateway Mastering and you get one of the strongest releases in recent memory.
The songs on Second Summer are all across the board. Sounding at times like a parallel-universe version of the E-Street Band, at others like some strange mutation of the indie-rock genome, Satellite Lot deliver luminously beautiful tunes with remarkably sophisticated melodies. You can track the progress of your involvement with this album by noting how your favorite track shifts from song to song. As you delve deeper and spend more time with each one, the songs take on new significances. Having by now decided that almost every track on Second Summer is the best one, my current favorite is the last, “By Lantern Light,” which features transcendent vocals by Sydney Bourke.
Click to hear: “By Lantern Light”
First among those bands whose 2005 offerings serve primarily as exciting glimpses at what 2006 may bring is Modern Syndrome. Portland’s favorite band under the age of 14, Modern Syndrome has put out not one, but two live albums this past year, and word has it they’re hard at work on another, more tightly constructed release. Listening to the two live discs, you can hear the development of a raw and exciting garage sound. If the songs on their MySpace page are any indication, Modern Syndrome is growing by leaps and bounds — almost too fast to be preserved in recorded format.
Click to hear: “Tight Rope”
Certain Numbers also released a tantalizing EP this year: For Your Leaves. Recorded entirely in frontman Ian Paige’s bedroom using the built-in mic on his laptop, For Your Leaves displays some gorgeously crafted songs that beg for a full studio treatment. Happily, Certain Numbers is currently in the studio with the very talented Joshua Powell. Until the full album comes out, this EP is an engrossing placeholder — and highly collectable, due to its extremely limited run and understated, hand-printed covers.
— Galen Richmond
Recordings by Diamond Sharp and Certain Numbers can be found at both Casco Bay Books and Strange Maine. Modern Syndrome’s two live discs are (to the best of my knowledge) both only available at Strange Maine. Brzowski’s album, as well as Satellite Lot’s, are both available at Bull Moose Music.