The Drums ‘Portamento’ – Review

11 Sep

Many bands have a tendency to make sweeping statements, but The Drums have made more than most. They are a band that seem to be defined by rules; they class their music as pop, not indie and certainly not rock. Their songs can’t be longer than 4 minutes. They have no interest in developing or experimenting and songs should be as simple as possible. They want all their albums to sound the same. Consistency is king. Their aim is always to create perfect pop music, and whilst they didn’t always deliver (and by their own admission they sometimes broke their own carefully constructed rules) they succeeded more than most. If you fell in love with The Drums it was most likely because they had these kind of rules; they seemed like a band from another era who said the things a band should say, dressed like  a band should dress, and generally did the things bands should do. I think this is why early reviews (mine very much included) were hyperbolic and fantastically optimistic, The Drums genuinely stood out from the crowd because they seemingly arrived fully formed as a perfect band.

For a group that were so insistent on being consistent, It’s surprising to find that ‘Portamento’ is not the carbon copy of the debut that I had expected – perhaps this has something to do with the departure of original guitarist Adam Kessler and the resulting expansion of the group. One of The Drums ‘rules’ is that image is key, so rather than hire live musicians to help flesh out the tracks, the band used backing tracks on stage (alongside guitar, drums and vocals). It made for a very two-dimensional, if visually impressive, live set up. Now that Kessler has gone, the band seem to have thankfully backtracked on this stubborn policy, and they’ve now expanded to a (backing track free) five piece live. Keesler’s departure also resulted in a bit of a switch around for the remaining members. Former drummer Conner is now the guitarist and former guitarist Jacob is now on synths, whilst Johnny now drums as well as sings. Confusing, yes, but what it means in basic terms is this is a more ambitious (I have a feeling they would hate that word) and experimental (that one even more) album than ‘Summertime’ or ‘The Drums’.

Of course they are still a pop band, religiously so, reliant on melody, harmonies, and simple structures. But the songs feel less linier and less obvious, but as a result less catchy.  This time the melodies are more daring and theatrical, the instrumentation (still simple and guitar based but complimented by an analogue synth) is more melancholic. On ‘I Need a Doctor’ a vocal sample similar to the one used on ‘Best Friend’ is wrapped around beats that jump from channel to channel and an actual real life bassline (there was no bass on the debut). At first it’s a jarring mix, but it kind of works. ‘If He Likes It Let Him Do It’ is another departure; the synth in the chorus is like something from a hammer horror soundtrack and the guitar line is relentlessly dark and twisted. ‘Searching For Heaven’ takes the synth love even further – the entire song is built around an old analogue moog that sounds like it’s been locked in a German bunker for the past thirty years. These three songs are going to divide opinion, and I would be lying if I said they were wholly successful experiments, but it does display that the band have more depth and imagination than many critics originally gave them credit for.

Lyrically the debut dealt with abstract themes of love and loss, with songs that scanned like scenes from a black and white hollywood movie. This time I get the feeling that the songs are rooted more in specific, personal memories. On ‘The Book of Revelation’ when Johnny sings ‘You are the son of an evil man, I know you hate yourself but you’re nothing like him’ you somehow believe that he has lived it, where as when he sang ‘mama I wanna go surfing’, as brilliant a piece of escapism as it was, you just didn’t buy it. On ‘I Don’t Know How to Love’ he says ‘I remember football in the park’, whilst on ‘I Need a Doctor’ he talks about ‘that night you put your lipstick on me, I felt so stupid so I drank to get dizzy.’ It’s all rooted in Johnny’s past and he sells it with complete conviction. Whilst the verses are deeper and more complex, he’s still dealing with simple and memorable choruses that get straight to the point. The aim is to convey sadness in the most instant and direct way possible, for example ‘I want to buy you something, but I don’t have any money’ or ‘I wont ever hate you, but your hard to love’.

‘Money’ was a strange choice of first single – perhaps it was chosen because the record label execs thought that the theme of having no money would resonate, and it does, it’s just a shame that musically it’s a bit directionless – great bassline, but not much else. ‘Hard to Love’ or ‘I don’t Know How to Love’ might have been better choices, both have the infectious melodies that made ‘Best Friend’ and ‘Forever and Ever Amen’ minor hits. And make no mistake, as good as some of the more downbeat songs are, the group are still absolutely at their best when their melodies are as sunny as the lyrics are overcast.

‘How It Ended’ closes the album in much the same way ‘The Future’ closed the debut – essentially it’s as uplifting as The Drums get. ‘Those Days when I would sit around with you, there’s nothing like it. Even when my heart was black and blue, there’s nothing like it.’ Essentially the song is saying that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, whereas the rest of the album (particularly the second half) is bitter and resentful. So whilst ‘Portamento’ might be a complete downer for 35 odd minutes, the last four are at least a happy listening experience.

I always felt there was something a bit special about The Drums, ultimately the hype didn’t make for great sales but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t justified. They remain the idealist, superficial pop dream band; they still sound like every group you’ve always loved thrown into a blender, they still look perfect, dress perfect and say the perfect things; what’s interesting is that on this album they are moving away from the superficiality and adding some substance, but they never really forget the promises they made us in the beginning. Johnny once said ‘It’s the contrast that interests us, one shade of blue would be boring’ and the great strength of the debut was that it achieved the perfect blend of sweet and sour. This time around there is a lot less of the sweet and a lot more of the sour, which makes for a less satisfying and less enjoyable record, but ultimately it retains most of what I loved about this band whilst adding some new and exciting ingredients into the mix. Portamento is a musical term meaning a gentle slide or shift – it’s the perfect title for this transitional album.


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