In the press release Portugal The Man issued about American Ghetto, the band's leader John Gourley explains that “American Ghetto was an album that, though drum machined and programmed and synthesized, maintained a lot of feeling and the soul and heart of what this band is.” This is a surprisingly honest and accurate assessment coming from an album's creator; normally they try to come off as literate and obscurantist even when talking about a stripped down album (I'm looking at you, Matt Friedberger, and the stuff you said about I'm Going Away, rambling about Taxi and Titanic like you did). Any any rate, the short turnaround time between this album and last year's damned good The Satanic Satanist led me to believe it would be either a dramatic departure or more of the same, but not as good.
American Ghetto is more of the same: indie rock mixed up with funk and soul/R&B in a way reminiscent of recent Of Montreal releases but less experimental and more consistent. However, it's also “more of the same but still good.” There is indeed a more synthetic and programmed feel to this album, with drum loops and even some samples mixed in. Yet Ghetto has a surprisingly “live” and grooving sound even if it lacks the energy of a full band playing together in the studio. 'The Pushers Party' has incredibly solid drum lines and some Hendrix-ian guitar licks, complete with distortion and wah-wah pedal; one imagines it will be a delight live. At the same time, tracks like 'When The War Ends' have a throwaway feel that belies the album's quick short production. The trite, impersonal, and dull political lyrics don't help, but it's the seemingly tacked on, unnecessary sitars and overwhelmingly stuffed layers of sound that bring it down. Some more finesse and time in the studio could have brought stuff like this in line, as well as the sense that sometimes the songs go on for a minute too long.
However, John Gourley's infallibly keen sense of melodies and hooks is perhaps even sharper than it was on The Satanic Satanist. Opener 'The Dead Dog' sort of sounds like the lithe, falsetto Jack White of 'My Doorbell' mixed with a drum loop/sample straight off one of Beck's Odelay ancestor albums like Guero. And if the lyrical hook of '60 Years' doesn't immediately stick with you, I don't know what will. Gourley simply has a way with delivering lyrics in relation to both melody and rhythm that is one of those things that set apart the Portugal The Man's of the world from the Static Of The Gods's. I do wish there were more surprises like the funk jam outro of 'Fantastic Pace', but maybe that's just me.
If American Ghetto doesn't have the same Summer-y ease and refinement of The Satanic Satanist, it's still just as successful and enjoyable in different ways. Think of it as the darker, harder edged flipside of the Satanist coin.
Note: I could not get the album cover image to upload or hotlink for the life of me, but if you really want to find it, you can.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5