With genres and sub-genres becoming ever more specific (and ridiculous) with each passing day, there's something refreshing about Portugal. The Man and their new studio album In The Mountain In The Cloud. At heart, it's a simple rock and roll record, referencing the sounds and ideas that elevated pop music to a serious craft in the first place. But classic pop is not an easy aspiration for a twenty-first century band from Portland/Alaska, carrying as it does the accumulated successes and failures of fifty years of pop prolificacy. And while In The Mountain In The Cloud may not be the most innovative record we'll listen to this year, it's certainly one of the more listenable. 

Six previous albums and five E.P.s  has seen P.TM develop their sonics beyond the psyche-pop trappings of Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev, creating a more polished brand of orchestration that should embrace an ever broader fanbase. The only problem is that despite In The Mountain In The Cloud sounding as professional and sparkly as their recent major label ascendancy to Atlantic indicates, it can, at times, sound just a little bit shallow.

Opening track ´So American' kicks the band into fine form, sonically and lyrically referencing a Ziggy-era Bowie, the song nicely canvassing John Gourley´s expansive vocal range juxtaposed against smatterings of keyboards and violins. It's an immaculate and intricate recording, the sound of a big studio with big money behind it. Likewise, 'Head Is A Flame (Cool With It)' recalls the melodic drive and sultry rhythm of T-Rex, albeit with the production tweaks of a 21st century mixing desk. Yet in either case, it's hard to derive much meaning from the music, as if somewhere along the line the band lost sight of dynamics, in amongst their masterful control of styles. Take the latter track, for instance. Gourley sings "well we all get strange, and we know it/ But we´re cool with it/ And we all get a little bit older in this day and age/ But we deal with it." Perhaps these sentiments sound passable the first time the chorus rolls around, and less so by the second and third repetition, but it's hardly the most urgent or captivating refrain for a song already mired in a 70s rock aesthetic. At times, such as on the sweeping Beatles-esque 'You Carried Us (Share With Me The Sun),' one almost feels like Gourley couldn't choose between personal reflection or surreal cinematics, and has landed somewhere uncomfortably in between.


Fortunately, the album përiodically finds relief from it's nostalgic agenda. 'Senseless' is three minutes of fuzzed-out disco more reminiscent of MGMT or Empire of the Sun, with a chaingang chorus that crashes over Gourley´s insistent vocal. The same is true on 'Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs),' where arpeggio keys create walls of sound that pulsate melodically beneath Gourley's high-pitched affirmations of youth. Album closer 'Sleep Forever' is a masterful blend of indignation and resignation about the inevitability of work and growing up, managing to soar and whisper at the same time. It anchors the record majestically, making one almost forget that not every song on In The Mountain In The Cloud is a knockout.

In the end, it's hard to say anything bad about a record that superficially sounds this good, but in equal measure, it´s hard to get genuinely excited about either. The band may be one of the most talented and prolific going, but this record's focus on epic production and superfluous instrumentation occasionally obscures the clarity of the songwriting, of the lyrics, of the expression, of what good pop is all about, basically.