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In the Mountain in the Cloud
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In The Mountain In The Cloud marks Portugal. The Man's sixth full-length in as many years, as well as the band's debut for Atlantic Records. Carrying forth the momentum triggered by their unexpected rise in 2006, and their FM airwave success of "People Say" (from 2009's The Satanic Satanist), In The Mountain In The Cloud continues the pattern of an album per calendar year, a feat made all the more staggering when you consider the band's fervent devotion to the open road, logging over 800 shows-performing everywhere from freight elevators to a mesmerizing set at Bonnaroo-since their inception. In The Mountain In The Cloud marks the first recording by the band to accurately harness their onstage energy; it's a recording that places Portugal. The Man's devout work ethic and singular vision on full display.
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Their are just getting better and better between each album while still being authentic and original.
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But where The Satanic Satanist sounded like a new tack for the band and American Ghetto a grab-bag from their past, In the Mountain in the Cloud seems like more of the same, albeit with a major label budget that allows for an expanded sound. Not to say that things here a retread; songs are as distinct as they come, from the trippy opener of "So American" to the barnstorming riff and cries of the coming revolution on "Got It All (This Can't Be Living Now)," and the band's palette is well diversified. It's just that a band as obviously talented as Portugal. The Man, a group who combines standard verse-chorus-verse with midsections as thrilling as the space-rock of "You Carried Us All (Share With Me The Sun)" or switches directions as effortlessly as they do with the sinister synths of "All Your Light (Times Like These)" always seem like they could be doing more. Yes, there's an added dimension to everything here courtesy of Atlantic Records, from bombastic horns on "Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujah)" (have I mentioned that Portugal. The Man needs to lay off the parenthetical song titles?) to an array of strings that color Gourley's emotive vocals and more. Everything just seems a little on the safe side, content to roam within the boundaries of chorus and hook and Gourley's vague hippie platitudes.
Fans of Portugal. The Man's live show will know just what is missing here - that desire to explore, to step out of self-imposed boundaries every once in a while. For a band known for ten-minute-plus jams in concert and a fearless willingness to experiment, In the Mountain in the Cloud is surprisingly tame. This worked for The Satanic Satanist because that record flowed so well and was surprisingly economical; take a track out on that record and the album would have suffered for it. Here, songs like "Senseless" or "Share With Me The Sun" are lovely but don't really accomplish anything the tunes around them already haven't. That's not to say that In the Mountain in the Cloud isn't a slice of superb psychedelic rock like its predecessor - it most assuredly is, and songs like "So American" and "All Your Light (Times Like These)" are some of the best of the band's career. It's just when "Sleep Forever" closes things out with a triumphant six-and-a-half-minute celebration of the band's sound, one realizes just what Portugal. The Man is capable of. How the song progresses from a light fingerpicked melody and builds itself up almost entirely on the gradual addition of drums, piano and strings and Gourley's beautifully ascending vocals is a singularly powerful experience. When the band ties everything together with a wicked guitar solo and ends with gang vocals raised in almost church-like ecstasy, it's indisputable just what the band can accomplish when they allow themselves a little more room to breathe. There's nothing wrong with writing four-minute protest songs that relish in the best of their psychedelic influences, but it'll be when Portugal. The Man really unshackle themselves and start writing what they do best that they will establish themselves as a band on par with their forebears.
The album opens with the one-two punch of "So American"/"Floating", two tracks seeped in strings and percussion that instantly evokes the studio wizardry of mid-seventies Bowie. "Senseless" soon follows and is drenched in guitar noise, in which lead singer/guitarist John Gourley proves his guitar mastery by doing everything with his six strings but soloing. "Once Was One" starts off sounding like a "Censored Colors" outtake before it evolves into another sweeping, drum-machine driven epic. What may be the best song PTM has ever released, "All Your Light" finds it's roots in "American Ghetto"'s dark second half. Ominous keyboards give way to a pounding drum beat over which Gourley's voice soars, at times playing call and response with the band's almost tribal backing vocals. Then, out of nowhere, the band drops into a seriously tight jam that harkens back to the band's first album, "Waiter: You Vultures!"
Lyrically, the band explores some darker places. Vietnam, politicians, growing old, "So American" is NOT a compliment, "All Your Light" CAN'T save me, and "Sleep Forever", the closing track, ends with the lines "everything is perfectly messed up again". For all the catchy riffs, quirky keyboard noises, and bouncy rhythms, the mood of the lyrics does not seem to be overwhelmingly positive. It is this contrast which makes the album that much more interesting.
It seems that there is something new to discover every time this album is played. If you own headphones, put them on. Portugal. The Man has done an amazing job of creating a sum that is greater than its parts, but to fully appreciate all that went into this album, make sure you find the time to hear all those parts.
Personally, I would suggest starting with some older material (The Satanic Satanist and American Ghetto)first, before working your way to this one. Mainly, so you can appreciate the growth they've experienced both in songwriting and production over the course of just a couple of years.
Regardless, if you should start with this album, rest assured, you will still be in good hands, as songs such as, "Floating (Time Isn't Working My Side)", "Share With Me The Sun", and "All Your Light (Times Like These)" stand among their strongest.