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Album Review: The Drums – Portamento

By Nolan Siegler

When asked in a recent interview with MTV if there was a single song they wrote that changed the course of their lives, The Drums responded accordingly. “Let’s Go Surfing. I don’t like that song, but it did change all of our lives,” said front man Jonathan Pierce. The New York trio then performed an acoustic set in the middle of an ice cold freezer, an environment not suitable for most surf-pop bands.

But should the Drums be lumped together with the recent splash of surf inspired bands? 2009 saw the release of their debut EP Summertime. Filled with handclaps and whistles, listeners were quick to categorize them as Beach Boys enthusiasts (an accolade they considered an insult; citing the Shangri Las as the origins of their nostalgic whistles). Then their self-titled debut surfaced in 2010 and built upon their signature sound with anthem sized hooks, romanticized lyrics and sonic references to their personal heroes (the Field Mice, Morrissey, the Wake, Orange Juice).

With Portamento, the Drums continue to break away from their stereotype as a surf-pop band while keeping certain elements of their sound intact. Back are harmonized vocals and handclaps, but left out are boyish antics and any mentions of the beach. Album staples like “What You Were” and “How It Ended” feature a welcome variation in sound without diverging too far from their debut, while “Searching for Heaven” takes the listener on an unexpected synth odyssey that harkens back to early Wendy Carlos soundtracks. Pierce delivers lyrics in a more autobiographical tone by harmonizing about his hardcore religious upbringing and personal demons in his own hopeless fashion. In fact, it seems overbearing at times. Pierce’s personality dominates Portamento and leaves little room for band members Jacob Graham and Connor Hanwick to shine.

As evident from the album artwork, their sophomore album takes on a much darker tone than their debut. A new found sense of reality has set in for the band that was once touted by NME as the next saviors of American pop. The naïve and hopeful attitude about their career has been demolished, likely due to the sudden departure of original guitarist Adam Kessler in 2010.

Fear and betrayal are key factors on Portamento, and encompasses its mood; this is a band that won’t let a producer touch their material because of bad experiences in the past. Their lack of trust lends itself to the albums nature, which Pierce describes as “rooted in reality.” If there was an ounce of hopefulness buried within the cleverly disguised sadness from their debut, it’s long gone now. Featuring a bleak atmosphere and minimal bass lines taken out of Peter Hook’s handbook, the group has more in common with Joy Division now than they ever did before. This minimal approach means there are no grandiose melodies that were found on tracks “Forever and Ever, Amen” or “Me and the Moon”; a trait that will be sorely missed by their earliest pop loving fans.

Whether or not the Drums have completely broken their stereotype as a surf band is irrelevant. They seem confident enough in their special brand of misery to provide catchy songs to moody pop fanatics for years to come. Although “Let’s Go Surfing” might not represent the Drums as a band anymore, it captured their silly naivety at its peak. While Pierce and co. relish in their cold reality where friends betray and people are never true, others yearn for the 1950’s inspired hope that they produced so well in 2010. Maybe it is time for them to step out of the freezer and warm up.

Rating: 7.5/10