It's always a concern when a beloved fringe band makes its deal with the Devil and signs on with a major label. Fans were worried when Portugal. The Man partnered with Atlantic, but from the opening seconds of So American, my doubts evaporated. The production throughout In the Mountain, In the Cloud reflects a studio budget, while the writing and song selection are clearly under the band's control, which is the ideal. The album still doesn't resolve the conflict between PTB's live shows and recorded work, though, because the songs miss out on the free form arrangements that the band delivers on stage.
In the Mountain, In the Cloud mixes old and new sounds. PTB continues to explore some of David Bowie's sound, but this album is more focused on Young Americans, extending Bowie's homage to American soul into psychedelia. They add a Supertramp flavor to the sound that seems new to me. These retro elements are there, but there's just as much Flaming Lips or My Morning Jacket, reflecting similar decisions that the modern bands make in mining these sounds.
The opening and closing tracks each polish a jam aesthetic into pop perfection. So American is tightly written; the lyrics aren't predictable, yet they seem inevitable:
He may not be born of this landThe vocal flow is effortless. The song is layered with detail, the string backing in particular adds a nuanced touch. The song is incredibly efficient, yet maintains a looser Flaming Lips trippiness.
But he was born of this world
He was born of all the mothers
And the colors of our brothers
And the love that was started
You, by the one they call Jesus Christ
Who may not know no rock and roll
And there may not be a heaven
Or a place to which to send you
But you know in the end, there is a madness in us all...
So, who broke the rules?
Sleep Forever is similarly balanced. The melodic elements are stated up front in a slightly Hendrixy run though and the song builds on this feel. Supertramp's Breakfast in America feels like an influence, but the cello backing is all Beatles. The solo opens up a jam where the string accompaniment is almost as strong as the guitar lines.
Got It All (This Can't Be Living Now), is another track that travels over the Flaming Lips' trails. The Beatlesque feel is rooted in a George Harrison style guitar riff and the beautiful string arrangement. It sets up a repetitious, psychedelic soul vibe.The opening line, "This can't be living now. If so, then show me how", sets the hook with a lyric that remains long after the song is over. "We've got it all, 'til the revolution comes" sounds defeatist, yet John Gourley's falsetto is almost joyous at the prospect.
It would be great if In the Mountain, In the Cloud could capture more of the band's live jam exploration, with less structured songs. But many bands never bridge that gap between their albums and their live sound. Portugal. The Man recognizes the strength of each milieu. The album creates an unselfconscious, pop feel, while their live arrangements are more improvisational.