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Portugal. The Man

The Satanic Satanist

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Label: Equal Vision Records

Portugal. The Man is a five-piece rock band from Wasilla, Alaska–a town famed for its lipsticked bulldogs and Joe Six-Packs–with a penchant for catchy melodies and odd punctuation. They may or may not be Satanists; it’s difficult to say for sure. The album’s content surely doesn’t suggest it. But it surely doesn’t suggest otherwise. I would guess that the demonically redundant title is a clever ploy to create distance between themselves and Wasilla’s most famous export, former mayor Sarah Palin. If this introduction seems vague and off point, you’re on your way to understanding what it’s like to listen to The Satanic Satanist.

The album’s an unfocused potpourri of familiar-sounding pop-rock castaways led by “People Say,” an anti-war anthem waxing on the complacency of an agitator’s citizenry in the face of a conflict’s human cost. “What a lovely day/ Yeah we won the war/ ay have lost a million men/ but we got a million more,” singer John Gourley croons. With shades of country-gospel and a funk wah-pedal working their way into the mix, the track sounds vaguely of Jason Mraz covering a lost B-side to Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”

As the first in a trilogy of songs, “People Say” fades into the elastic funk of “Work All Day.” What sounds initially like it could be an slow-tempo cut from The Clash’s Sandinista! builds into a dense, beat-driven pop song. The rapid-fire chorus, while metaphorically indecipherable, is infectious. “Lovers in Love” completes the threesome with an upbeat dance track rooted in the ’70s soul of Curtis Mayfield. Backup vocalist Zoe Manville turns the Flight of the Conchords-esque title into something of a chorus with her falsetto reiteration over high-tempo wah, a racing drum rhythm and persistent cymbals. The instrumental transitions between these opening tracks work well enough but thematically, the lack of a continuous thought leaves one puzzled. By ditching his Pete Seeger-inspired activism for a mindless dance track, Gourley emerges from the six-minute arc guilty of the very complacency he derides in the opener.

The recycled sound continues with “The Sun”, a track that shimmers like a fantasy parade and temporarily sidelines the funk and soul feel of the preceding tracks. Instead it centers on an acoustic riff with a chord progression reminiscent of the Pixies’ iconic “Where Is My Mind?” Fortunately, a vibrant string arrangement and the vocal harmony of Gourley and Manville give the composition a quicker, far brighter feel than the Surfer Rosa gem. It’s at least enough to stop you from filling in the melody with Frank Black’s lyrics.

While The Satanic Satanist isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, it certainly can be a fun listen in spots. An organ intro and rowdy church-choir-style back up vocals set “The Home” off running. Two minutes later the track ascends with building percussion, well placed synth and urgency in Gourley’s lyrics that provide a nice peak around the album’s midpoint. Unfortunately, such highs are offset by awkward moments elsewhere. The lyricism of “Guns and Dogs” for instance, “Got some guns, got some dogs/ And just like them dogs, yeah the guns just get bigger.” Unnecessary.

In spite of some of its troubling choices, The Satanic Satanist remains a well produced, entirely listenable, often catchy album. It’s the lack of coherence and focus, both instrumentally and thematically, that leave you underwhelmed. Like an overmatched vice-presidential candidate, Portugal. The Man is throwing everything at the wall in the hopes that something of value will stick. Maybe they can try again in 2012.

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