There is no need for me to stress the importance of atmosphere within music. Anyone who has heard any quality music, from classical works to punk or shoegaze, understands that it is a vital component in building up a dedicated fan base, with a song’s “catchiness” obviously not being the only factor in what creates an admirable result. As simple as it may be for many musicians to hum a melody and relay it into instrumental form, capturing a sense of atmospheric believability is a skill that cannot simply be taught. Artists who intentionally seek a certain atmosphere are very similar to artists who limit themselves to only one style in which they enjoy; both often fail in their aftereffect due to their linear outlook and restrictive tendencies. Many of their talents lie elsewhere in other stylistic niches, but they limit themselves and eventually cause their hidden skills to become useless and generally irrecoverable. It would be quite easy for me to group Ports of Call into the masses of shoegaze revivalists that are finding a home in this decade, spurred by a movement over 20 years old. But they, unlike many of their contemporaries, clearly have the ability to craft an audible atmosphere through their musical prowess alone. Whether it be through their haunting production effects, reverbed vocals, or resoundingly sterile guitars, their atmospheric ability is easy to admire.
At this point, the most prominent fans of Ports of Call are located near the band’s originative location in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Though they could still easily be penned as a local favorite, the keen five-piece presents ambitions that are too formidable to allow them to stick around in one city for long. Their sound is a proficiently blended mixture of several styles of alternative music that were prominent in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the most relevant being college rock, post-punk, and shoegaze. Despite several other contemporary acts attempting similarly influenced styles, Ports of Call’s depiction of the American Underground scene is fresh and invigorating. Their most distinctive influence appears in the form of Sonic Youth, the legendary act who nearly every newly successful indie-rock band seems to owe a great debt to. Their lineup is presented similarly as well, with a serenely brisk set of female vocals gliding over numerous layers of guitars and keys, often supported or relieved by a set of accompanying male vocals. If it were not for Ports of Call’s equalized focus on the murky production aspects of shoegaze, a youngin’ might even mistake the vocal duo for Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. Even with such respectable comparisons, Ports of Call’s sound is generally more relaxed and subdued than Sonic Youth’s, with whirring guitar effects and pedals utilized to perfection over vocals that rarely shift in volume or tone. It is within their tone of relaxation that makes Ports of Call unique in their own rich methods of revivalism.
Though Ports of Call remain a band with little to no personal information available for the press kit-hungry consumers, the quality of their musical content is unquestionable. If I were to make an educated guess, I believe that Ports of Call’s current “unsigned” status will be altered by mid-2008 at the very latest. Such expectations are hardly unrealistic, as Ports of Call’s self-released debut, Like Thieves, encompasses all the mature characteristics that labels look for in a budding act. With shimmering guitars and savvy vocal effects establishing my aforementioned infatuation with Ports of Call’s atmospheric irresistibility, I cannot help but be impressed by the five-piece’s level of production. My favorite track on the album, “Washout”, is structurally simplistic but layered with elegance and intricacy. As vocalists Thomas and Carolynne alternate between vocal cues, a series of shifting guitar progressions glides freely over a consistent rhythm section. When the duo combines for a duet over the subdued roar of a droning guitar throughout the bridge and chorus, the beauty of both “Washout” and Ports of Call’s blossoming style becomes wildly apparent. In the chorus, Carolynne abruptly raises her vocal pitch significantly to highlight her emotional strain; it is incredibly touching when relayed over the band’s thick instrumentation, guided by numerous guitars and effects. Just like Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, the vocal interaction between Thomas, Carolynne, and the responsive guitars are breathtaking.
All this talk surrounding the vocal, guitar, and production work in Like Thieves nearly made me forgot about one of Ports of Call’s most productive assets. Though all three melodic aspects are extremely impressive, the rhythm section, consisting of newly acquired bassist Stephanie and drummer Daniel, is a treat in its own right. Look no further than the brooding “Claire” for a definitive example. The intensity of Daniel’s drums steers the intensity of the track, with a variety of fills and and subdued consistencies clarifying the transitions between verse, bridge, and chorus. With the guitars giving off a typical post-punk edge, Stephanie’s bass lines resound just as effectively in its overpowering approach. Though the guitar and bass remain in similar key, her commendable bass work allows for flexibility and, in turn, an abundance of varying enjoyment. The grungey “Honey” utilizes both the guitar-led and rhythm section aspects of Ports of Call’s powerful approach, all while emphasizing a larger focus on the vocal melody. Even though it is one of the more accessible tracks on Like Thieves, “Honey” is still just as gloomily muddled as the rest… and enjoyably so. Keep an eye on Ports of Call and their debut album, Like Thieves, when it drops in January. One thing is for sure: Ports of Call will not be unsigned for much longer.
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