Defined by Resistance: The Portland Sound

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Outside of Portland, the city’s indie-rock scene gets most of the press love. But the city’s music fans know there’s plenty more on offer here. For all the attempts to create a singular Portland sound, the city’s musical signature is mostly a lack of one.

Take PDX Pop Now! Best known as a free, all-ages, non-profit summer music festival, PPN also puts out an annual two-disc compilation, a slice of the city's many scenes. Yes, the comp weights toward indie–this year’s offering features tracks from soul punkers New Bloods, electronic spazster Yacht, critical darlings Blitzen Trapper, and electro-acoustic pop duo Talkdemonic–but makes space for other genres. For 2008, Copacrescent, Braille, Sandpeople, and Living Proof (with soul singer Liv Warfield) all showcased hip-hop, a style that doesn’t always get much cred in Portland. Hurricane Katrina evacuee Devin Phillips, now a Portlander, shows off the sax playing that made him the poster boy (literally) for the Portland Jazz Festival in 2007. Folk (Horse Feathers, Heather Broderick with the Portland Cello Project) and global lounge retro-chic (Pink Martini) show up as well. The PDX Pop Now! comp has become influential in Portland, where PPN organizers have proven themselves by tapping both big names as well as next big things for their festivals and compilations.

Having said that, yes, there is a lot of indie rock in PDX, a city that prides itself on an anti-corporate, DIY aesthetic (even if it is lousy with Starbuckses). The jangly indie rock of The Shaky Hands got enough attention in 2007 to win them the coveted title of Best New Band from alt-weekly Willamette Week; their debut album was a sunny, happy affair. Now they’ve signed to the newly-relocated-to-Portland Kill Rock Stars label. The songs on the band’s sophomore LP are as loosely constructed as ever, but there’s more darkness here. The crashing “No Say” is as aware of human shortcomings as anything by Bob Dylan (a clear inspiration for the band), and “Love All of” stands out for its lovely sparseness. There’s a more mature sound on this album, with less of the insularity that Portland can sometimes breed in its artists.

Musée Mécanique’s Hold This Ghost is the band’s first full-length, but it shows another strength of the Portland music world: Its artists love collaboration. Hold This Ghost includes contributions from wintry folk singer Laura Gibson, cellist Douglas Jenkins, and John Adam Weinland Shearer of folk-rock band Weinland, among others. The result is a layered, delicate take on folk, meticulously arranged with an ear for atmosphere and texture, with surprises unfolding every moment. There’s an eerie, melancholy sense of memory underlying these songs, even if pinning those memories down through the gauzy ebbs and tides is impossible. Electronic and acoustic sounds blend smoothly as a dream, with that same intangible sense of meaning.

More theatrical are Parenthetical Girls, with what they call an orchestral song cycle­–not a bad description, either, of the lush arrangements and emotion-soaked vocals on their latest, Entanglements. The album is saturated with sound, with whiffs of Van Dyke Parks- and Patrick Wolf-style songwriting. The narrative threading all these songs together feels a little musical theater-ish, sometimes bordering on overwrought, sometimes endearing, but never lacking in ambition. Much like Portland itself.