A hallmark of Portland’s music scene has always been its diversity of approach and style.
Where other first-rate music cities are sometimes easy to peg – New Orleans for its jazz and horn-filled R&B, Nashville and Austin for their roots and country, the era of Seattle’s famous grunge – Portland has always been broad and a little bit slippery.
Two important records released last week put that in sharp relief.
On one side of the spectrum, you have the operatic and intricately wound “Tragic at Best,” from the five-piece Johnny Cremains, who augment their 13-song opus with a phalanx of guest players and vocalists over the course of an album that stretches past an hour.
On the other side, you have Bait Bag’s “Confident, Sloppy, and Loud!,” a raucous and sneering debut full-length with 12 songs that barely crack 30 minutes in total.
Both, however, demand your attention.
Bait Bag’s release is the more immediate. Recorded over the past year at Richard Marr’s Galaxy Park Studios (Big D and the Kids Table, Jello Biafra) in Boston, it holds a lot of the simmering anger and frustration – the exasperation – of the pandemic period. The opening “Dress Code,” which mocks the absurdity of what women are “allowed” to wear in a variety of situations, literally closes the first pre-verse with “so what? Don’t give a fuck.”
Perhaps more to the point, the hard-charging “Mind Magic” features co-frontgal and guitarist Fiona Robins declaring, “You don’t get to tell me what is real,” alternating shouts over crunching guitar and in a cappella breaks. (And if you want to talk about a spectrum of musical performance, check out “Almanac,” the downright dainty solo album fellow frontgal and bassist Courtney Naliboff put out in 2011.)
Cremains, on the other hand, has been sitting on their record for a while.
Recorded at Acadia with Todd Hutchisen and largely finished before the pandemic began, it is moody and playful, languid and at ease with itself in a way that may make one nostalgic. These sorts of big-band productions have become rare in the time of masked session work.
Lead singer Sean Libby’s delivery is a distinctive one, drawn-out and melodramatic, often distorted and always mood-setting. He’s supported particularly well by Erik Winter’s piano, which opens the album in grand fashion on “Buried Alive” and often lends a cinematic quality to the album as a whole with a Danny Elfman flair.
When they bring in Reneé Coolbrith for songs like “Park Bench Suicide” and “Wendy Never Cared Much for the Gold Room,” it’s hard not to imagine there’s a short film playing somewhere that you can’t quite see. Drummer Adam Cogswell is especially expert at shepherding songs from one mood to the next, bringing things to a crashing halt and then slowly easing us back in.
These guys have been playing together for a long time and it shows – every note is in its proper place and the aesthetic is fully formed.
Bait Bag’s record is less theatrical experience and more therapy session, but the artistic vision is equally complete. The righteous anger is intoxicating. “Addicted” is all sharp-edged single-note guitar and an indictment of social media: “Take those filters and shove them up your ass.” It’s a declaration of independence, of self-love, a refusal to participate, and the nakedness of the arrangement forces the listener to get up close and personal.
And then they make sure you know they don’t take themselves too seriously with the live take of “Bar Fight,” where they use ’60s “oooh-ooohs” to declare they want to start a revolution and “I kinda wanna punch a fascist.” It’s dead serious and silly all at once.
“Entropy” is the standout, where the verses are all spikes and bristle and the chorus is downright melodic. The disdain for “the curl of your lips at my broadening hips and my refusal to hide them away” is contrasted expertly with a self-assured knowledge that “life’s too important to stop wearing short shorts … what do you want from me?”
Where these two bands come together is in their desire to actually say something.
While Bait Bag may be more overt, there is a clear passion for the outsider in Johnny Cremains’ work, bubbling up most clearly in “Malagamaniac,” where they tackle the outrage of the forced removal of Black families from Malaga Island in 1911, a shame that Maine will never live down: “They’ll change everything and they’ll blame it on your bones.”
You can be forgiven for wanting a summer bop while you sun yourself or drive around with the windows down, but make sure you make time for records like these. They might be a little more challenging, but they’ll stick with you long after the sun sets and the weather cools.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Bensbeendead. with Eva Honey, “The Walls” — It’s hard to say enough good things about Bensbeendead., who has carved out a digitized nostalgia and melancholy that somehow always manages to be uplifting. Perfect for those quiet early mornings when no one else is up yet.
• Brock Ginther, “Anderson’s ‘Gross-ry’” — The mind behind Divorce Cop is back with more weirdness, this time pairing with wife Kathryn Ginther, who has illustrated this odd romp through a store selling reptilian eggs and sweaty gym socks instead of the standard food staples. Truly weird.
• Cerberus Shoal, “Shall We Give the Earth as Word?” — A trumpet-filled romp, this is the Cerberus Shoal collective at its best, joyous and odd and unpredictable. Temporary Residence has just released the entire Cerberus catalog and this comes from “An Ongoing Ding,” the band’s swan song from 2010 and a great excuse to go back through to the beginning in 1995.
• Kurt Baker, “Don’t Go Falling in Love” — Revisit the best of Kurt Baker as part of this two-disc reissue of his 2012 album “Brand New Beat.” This is catchy and heart-felt, but make sure to check out deep cuts like “High Fidelity,” with its digital backbeat and hints of Joy Division and Depeche Mode.
• Rigometrics, “N.A.B.” — Brand new in Maine, this trio of young bucks is drenched in classic rock, with low-end blues piano and big vocals in the style of Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant. It certainly sounds like they’re working from the same early-rock foundations that fueled the late-’60s London scene. It’s worth watching to see what comes next.
— Sam Pfeifle