It feels as if 2017, more so than previous years, has seen a significant amount of rock bands reinvent themselves in an attempt to cross over into the mainstream. In comparison with the likes of Linkin Park or Paramore, however, who were filling arenas long before their transition to pop music, the success of Alaskan alt-rockers Portugal. The Man had been confined to coverage amongst rock music magazines and relatively limited representation on the rock charts until the release of their newest, pop-centred record, Woodstock. The peaking of the band’s single, Feel It Still, at number 89 on the Billboard Hot 100, therefore, seems to have come out of left field to some extent, and it’s certainly hard to imagine this track charting at all were it not for its features in adverts both for Vitamin Water and the new iPad. This being said, the retro, soulful pop hue to the song, which is made to sound all the more vintage through its interpolations of the main vocal melody from The Marvelettes’ Please Mr. Postman, could be said to serve a similar niche to that which the likes of Rag’n’Bone Man and Hozier cater towards. In fact, this could be the mission statement of the group’s eighth album, in that, as the title suggests, Woodstock seemingly attempts to capture much of the experimentation and philosophy of the music of the culture-defining music and arts festival, as well as the 60s in general. These efforts, however, are restricted to a handful of referential ideas or motifs, as well as the odd sample, that may evoke the sounds of the 60s in some way or another, but are rather surface-level, with much of the record being relatively safe on all fronts, rather than encapsulating the sentiment of a hugely experimental era in the history of popular music. Indeed, perhaps what Woodstock is lacking above all else is any semblance of bite to push the selection of admittedly good ideas featured throughout the tracklisting over the edge and into the territory that Portugal. The Man seem to be attempting to play towards.
Much of the need for a sense of sharpness across Woodstock seemingly arises from the smoothness (or lack thereof) with which Portugal. The Man transition into their newfound pop sound. With certain traits that have come to be closely associated with the indie outfit, such as the nasal, falsetto vocals of frontman John Gourley, not being as well suited to a soul- and funk-infused approach to pop music, some significant growing pains are conveyed through the band’s performances across the record. Feel It Still seems like an appropriate starting point for exemplifying this, as, although the track’s general neo-soul groove, and the way in which this is emphasised by some well-integrated horn punctuations, is most definitely catchy, and surely sticky enough to see at least some low-charting success, Gourley’s deliberately thin vocals and mild performance do a disservice to the song’s soulful swagger. Undoubtedly, especially when compared to the era in soul, R&B and blues that Portugal. The Man are referencing, a more impassioned, forcible and overall fiery delivery would have, firstly, been much more suited to the album’s themes and, secondly, simply complemented the song’s style far more cogently. Later on in the tracklisting, Keep On introduces a more rock-orientated interpretation to the soul attitude utilised on Feel It Still, with the bounce of the bass groove playing against the simple, lo-fi acoustic guitar chords in a similarly infectious fashion. Admittedly, on Keep On, the initial sparseness of the instrumentation accentuates the abrupt transition into the powerful rock hook rather effectively and, with this song leaning more towards some of Portugal. The Man’s previous material, Gourley’s regular, light vocal delivery doesn’t stand out as being entirely out of place or contradictory to the song’s general stylistic sentiment. Similarly, the sudden squeaks of synth play well against the raw, driving guitars atop the chorus, and are interspersed between the fluttering backing vocals to make for some satisfying form of counterpoint nearly always being present, in a way that substantially aids the overall catchiness of the song.
Whilst cuts like Keep On see various sounds interwoven rather well, other attempts at this across Woodstock come across as Portugal. The Man attempting to cram too many motifs or styles into one place, without much in the way of a sense of cohesiveness or any rhyme or reason to the clumsy cluster of ideas that are all rolled into one track. This isn’t necessarily to say that such songs are completely incoherent in their messy nature, rather it’s common that whiffs of interesting ideas will appear every now and then, but there nevertheless exists an underlying feeling of directionless, whilst giving the impression that the group either don’t entirely know where they want to go with their new sound, or that they do know, but simply don’t know how to get there. The second song in the tracklisting, Easy Tiger, is a prime example of a cut that simply attempts too much for its own good and suffers as a result. The pitch-shifted and manipulated vocal sample that introduces the track could have been used to open an EDM track, making it somewhat jarring as the band suddenly dives into a steady, indie pop groove, which itself is rather cluttered with sudden interruptions and arbitrary noises and effects that add little of anything to the mix. When the chopped and screwed vocals re-enter for the chorus, amidst cascades of descending bass and gargling effects, the group’s vision on this track becomes slightly more palpable, with the way in which these sounds come together hitting particularly luscious highs at times. The same could be said of the glitchy, glistening beat that succeeds it, but what holds such sections back from being as rich and textured as the band would like is the fact that, as layered and multi-faceted as they are, they nevertheless come across as rather disorganised and crowded, giving off the impression that the occasional flares of lush contrast happen purely by chance.
On the other side of things, a handful of songs from Woodstock see Portugal. The Man establish some sort of novelty that, outside of distinguishing such songs from the surrounding cuts in the tracklisting, acts more as a contrived appeal to a particular style than a well-conceived integration of a certain sound into the band’s usual stylings. The hip hop crossover of Mr. Lonely, for instance, comes across as being almost entirely tailored around the guest verse from The Pharcyde member Fatlip, to the point of sounding somewhat out of place in the tracklisting and resulting in Gourley’s vocal contributions to the rest of the song sounding relatively awkward. Although the instrumental is well-constructed for Fatlip’s feature, with the rapper’s flow pairing well with the nocturnal, bouncy groove of the drums and bass, whilst the moaning electronic melodies ornament the beat nicely, attempting to fit Gourley’s thin vocals atop this instrumental seems to have panned out like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Most likely as a means of making him sound more at home atop this beat, various vocal effects, like pitch-shifting and autotune, are employed, almost as if the group wanted to pursue some sort of alternative R&B vibe, but even with all of these bells and whistles, Gourley’s frail vocal style simply doesn’t mould well to this sound. Although not quite as forced, tracks like Live in the Moment or Rich Friends, with the latter attempting to be a singalong pop anthem, complete with “oo” vocals, clearly play towards the territory of much mainstream pop music, but do little, if anything, to add any sort of twist that makes such tracks stand out as being stamped by Portugal. The Man’s previous psychedelic slant.
Ultimately, it’s not as if Woodstock shows Portugal. The Man as merely being incompatible with their newfangled pop aesthetic, rather the best tracks on the album prove that the band can marry myriad styles and still retain at least some semblance of the definitive indie rock angle that dominated much of their earlier output. This being said, a significant number of moments across the tracklisting show a lack of either artistic vision or a complete understanding of how to execute the endeavours pursued by the group. On the tracks wherein Portugal. The Man play it safe and appeal to archetypal pop platitudes, they surely do the sound justice, just as there are hints of richness to be found on the record’s messier cuts, but it’s the deficiency in consistency, focus and, perhaps most importantly, any kind of punch wherein such songs fall short. Overall, as far as first forays into the mainstream go, Woodstock is by no means a massive failure, with numerous songs showing promise for Portugal. The Man’s future in pure pop music. However, without the same fiery attitude that is alluded to on its cover, Woodstock can be a bit too mild at times to pull off what Portugal. The Man are pursuing.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10