Music Cities, USA: Portland

erin petrie brings us another musical hotbed: Portland, Ore. …



Portland, Ore., is one of the Pacific Northwest’s signature cities, an environmentalist’s
paradise situated in the Willamette valley between Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. The Greenest City in America (or the world, by some claims), it is a hipster’s paradise and symbol of all things independent.

The city is the original and adopted home of some of the best indie rock acts of the last two decades: Elliott Smith, Modest Mouse, The Dandy Warhols, The Shins, The Decemberists, Stephen Malkmus. It’s such a haven for hip, cool bands that it can forgiven for being the place where Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love met. Maybe.

A precursor to the current indie rock scene was a vibrant punk and hardcore scene, perhaps best embodied by the now-defunct Sleater-Kinney. They were a riot grrl, feminist, politically charged punk rock band that were always a critic’s favorite, if never a widely popular act. Formed at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., by Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, they eventually relocated to Portland. Guitarist and lead singer Brownstein co-created and co-stars in the new Independent Film Channel sketch comedy show Portlandia, along with Saturday Night Live‘s Fred Armisen.

The punk scene made way for a large crop of alternative rock bands that sprung up in the early ’90s. The Dandy Warhols — led by Courtney Taylor-Taylor, who is so cool that he named himself twice — the ironic, pun-loving band emerged from Portland only to find most of their initial success overseas. Their first few albums boasted a psychedelic, slightly grungy pop sound (perhaps best done on “Not If You Were the Last Junkie On Earth’) that caught the ear of the British. They were elevated to college radio favorites in American after the popularity of their single “Bohemian Like You” and their songs were used on shows like Undeclared, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The O.C. and Veronica Mars.

“Bohemian Like You”

Modest Mouse’s lo-fi, noise pop was around way before you probably heard of them. Formed in 1994, they released a number of albums in the mid-to-late 1990s. It wasn’t until 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News that the Isaac Brock-led band cracked the Top 40 with hits like “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty.” Not only did they achieve their first real commercial success, but more impressively they caught the ear of Johnny Marr, the former Smiths guitarist. Marr joined the group on their 2007 release We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. Despite hitting the mainstream, they remain a quirky outfit reflective of their roots.

“Ocean Breathes Salty”

Modest Mouse toured with an up-and-coming group from Albuquerque in 2000: The Shins. When Natalie Portman told Zach Braff in the movie Garden State, “You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life. I swear,” it undoubtedly changed the lives of James Mercer and Co. as the world was introduced to the beautiful start of “New Slang.” After the initial success of Oh, Inverted World, which featured another Garden State soundtrack gem “Caring Is Creepy,” The Shins relocated to Portland for their second album, Chutes Too Narrow. Mercer, the founder and singer-songwriter, even made a guest appearance on Portlandia.

Perhaps Portland’s most prominent musical icon was the late Elliott Smith, who moved there at age 14 and returned after college in Massachusetts to become an integral part of the city’s music scene. His folksy, textured sound brought him both a cult following and mainstream success. He wrote several songs for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, including “Miss Misery,” which garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. The dark, brooding artist led a life of addiction that ended tragically at age 34 from stab wounds. His influence in his home city was evidence when the tribute To: Elliott, From: Portland was released after his death, featuring Portland artists covering his songs.

“Son Of Sam”

Other claims to fame:

In the ’60s, the city spawned some of the decade’s memorable garage rock. Both The Kingsmen and Paul Revere & The Raiders recorded “Louie Louie” in the same studio, with the former achieving the most success with their raucous cover of the Richard Berry-penned rock standard. Paul Revere made a name for themselves later on in the decade with hits like “Kicks” and “Indian Reservation.”

The Kingsmen version:

The Paul Revere & The Raiders version:

Portland Hall of Shame: Courtney Love. Is there anything redeemable about this train-wreck widow of Kurt Cobain and Hole frontwoman? Hole was a legitimate female rock act, but Love’s serious and long-lasting battle with drugs, poor parenting and highly questionable fashion choices are both disturbing and unfortunate.

“Gold Dust Woman”

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.