“And I believe, that when we die, we die/so let me love you tonight, let me love you tonight.” Yep, one song in and it’s apparent little has changed with The Drums‘ frontman Jonathan Pierce; he remains a hopeless romantic. It’s okay, it works for him – even if his looks suggest he’s more likely to pummel Ralph Macchio (with or without skeleton make up) than croon endlessly on the mic. Full disclosure: It’s not like anyone’s waiting endlessly on something revelatory from the Brooklyn indie pop outfit, but sophomore efforts always attract mindful eyes. And with Portamento, the group’s followup a year-and-some-change later, their successful experiment of making surf pop sound danceable-y angsty hasn’t lost its touch. It hasn’t changed much, either.
Again, that’s okay. You don’t want to liberally flirt with the sound too much. (See: MGMT’s polarizing Congratulations) But, you also don’t want to collect dust. The good news is that what little distinctions surface here make quite a difference. Not to get all “starfucker” on you, but last month at Lollapalooza, Pierce and guitarist Jacob Graham discussed the album’s direction with us, dropping some key words to take into consideration: “honest”, “real”, and, okay, we’ll throw this in too, “Wendy Carlos”. All three – even the transsexual multi-instrumentalist who gave credence to Moog synthesizers – ring true on Portamento. Thank god. Looking back, The Drums oozed of boyish flamboyance, of dance hall tragedies, fractured with moments where Pierce would rather dance it out than grab the girl and ask what’s wrong. It was fun – who the hell could complain?
It just wasn’t as hard hitting. (Well, save for “The Future”, which still ices the legs and pecks at the mopey heart.) While sonically the songs here tickle the ankles in all the same ways, they feel more focused. “If He Likes It Let Him Do It” conjures up actual memories, not poster perfect scenes framed by the likes of John Hughes or Cameron Crowe. “Please Don’t Leave” scratches at the chest with an urgency best saved for handmade high school Valentine’s Day cards – tear-stained, of course. And then there’s “Money”, a blistering single that basically rewrites the fabric of the band. Catchy? Uh-huh. Memorable? You bet. Honest? Brutally. It’s Pierce checking in with his fans, grabbing them by the shoulders, and saying, “Hey, I may wear this suh-weet denim jacket, I might be cooler than you, but fuck, I’ve got all the problems you have, okay?”
So, what’s the issue here? Outside of a few iconic moments – for the band, not in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, people – there’s far too much of the same zipper-lined guitar work and push-play percussion. What’s funny is that it actually echoes New Order (circa Movement) than anything by Joy Division, as critics tagged them with early on, which is intriguing, but still not enough. It just needs more; a sonic realization of sorts. What’s astounding is that Portamento catches them poking in the right direction, but only for a few minutes. Mid-album track “Searching for Heaven”, the group’s attempt at Vangelis or the aforementioned Wendy Carlos, hints at possible new currents the band could follow down the shoreline. To keep up with that surfer imagery, let’s end on this: We can only hope they catch that wave, bro.
Essential Tracks: “Money”, “If He Likes It Let Him Do It”, “Please Don’t Leave”