Almost more Radiohead than Radiohead

Like black metal, grind and pretty much all electronic music, Portland has this unspoken ratio in play: For every good band, there are approximately 300 bad ones.

Like black metal, grind and pretty much all electronic music, Portland has this unspoken ratio in play: For every good band, there are approximately 300 bad ones. Everyone in Portland thinks they’re in a good band. That said, for some strange reason, our town’s venues are clogged with bands that are just plain no good. With Portland’s nepotistic nature, spots in our now waning venue population are hotly contested. More often than not, smaller venues are packed to the gills with bands nobody really wants to see. But quietly, in the shadows, relative unknowns are doing some amazing things. Enter: Leaves Russell.

On Feb. 4, Leaves Russell released its first piece of music, “Tale of Two Basements.” A very promising release, ToTB may have performed the impossible: raising the bar of Portland’s stalwart music scene—and nobody out there knows it yet. On the flipside; at five tracks, does ToTB have the mass necessary to make a real impact on Portland’s sonic landscape?

In the shortest terms possible: it should. More honesty drips from this record than most albums released by Portlanders in the last few years. Listeners will call it like it is on this record. Leaves Russell are, in no uncertain terms, a more pop-oriented Radiohead with some R&B hooks scattered throughout.

And really, that’s fine. Songs like “Paperthin” really exemplify this comparison. Frontman Matthew Russell sounds like Thom Yorke might, if Yorke weren’t howling into a microphone drenched with compression, reverb and echo. It is this sense of stripped-down honesty that characterizes ToTB. Sparse but lush instrumentals cover the terrain of the record, which are only augmented by Russell’s crooning.

When the instruments drop out, Russell’s voice is naked and wavering, which only reinforces the idea that this record seems to conjure up again and again: Four guys got together and recorded a very real album, more out of passion than menial chore. Lots of records released in this city traverse every path BUT honesty, and sad to say, the façade quickly wears thin.

Every member contributes something to the band, which is more than can be said for quite a few bands these days. The lovely piano work is added by Russell himself, and its interplay with strings player Thacher Schmid’s violin on songs like “La Zona Rosa” is pared down and devoid of any pompous frills—quite the welcome change from early 2011’s (and late 2010’s) glut of dense tedium.

The rhythm section, comprised of bassist Isaac Medina and percussionist Jackson Conrad, is about as tight as any band could hope for. The closing minute or so of the album’s opening track, “Heart of Things,” is a perfect example. In what appears to be a short interlude at the end, the band interplays brilliantly with one another with gorgeous tones all around, especially those from Medina.

Of course, no album is without its flaws, and thankfully, this record keeps them to a minimum. Some of the songs could stand to be tightened up a bit. Some songs, such as “Paperthin” have a couple sparse transitions that drag down the mood of the song a bit. The transitions between tracks aren’t as smooth as they could be, but I think this hints at the album’s chief problem: the track order.

The record as a whole is exceptional. The order in which they choose to present it, however, is a little slipshod. The album’s pathway is a rocky one mood-wise, when a record of this caliber and emotive content could benefit from a much smoother ride. Personally, I’d order the tracks two, four, one, three and five for maximum enjoyment. But when your record’s biggest problem is the track order, I’d say you’re doing just fine. ?