It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the live performing arts in Portland and beyond. So much print space has been dedicated to this topic that rattling on about it here seems borderline trite.
Don’t let me be misunderstood—saving Portland’s venues is essential for the future of our live music ecosystem. But the media almost seems more concerned with this particular issue than any music itself—which is, of course, an unfortunate hallmark of most music journalism.
If reading an alternative weekly or listening to the radio was your primary method for keeping tabs on local music, you might be under the false impression that the scene has dried up. Indeed, record release shows have been cancelled and replaced by ad hoc and occasionally awkward bedroom livestreams, and local promo is virtually nonexistent thanks to gutted arts and culture budgets at some of Portland’s most venerable publications. Still, the music scene in Portland is far from dead.
Obviously, no musician wants to live in a world where they can’t play shows, tour or properly promote their releases. But artists keep releasing new music anyway, proving that these circumstances, while terrible, aren’t insurmountable.
It’s worth noting the music scene in Portland proved its resilience long before the pandemic started. Within the last decade at least, Portland artists have been forced to contend with endless venue closures, rising rents and a tech-centric zeitgeist which has, overall, made the city less hospitable to artists. In that sense, the pandemic is simply another hurdle in a series. Portland artists got a head start.
Amid the daily torrent of bad news, it’s easy to forget that good things still occasionally happen, and it can even feel a little bit selfish to create or indulge in art and music. But that binary shouldn’t exist—you can focus on the important stuff and also enjoy and acknowledge beauty when you see or hear it. All things considered, 2020 has been a pretty good year for new Portland music. Here are some of the best—and most overlooked—releases of the year so far.
Growing Pains / “Houseboat”
Before the pandemic, Growing Pains were considered bellwethers of Portland’s DIY scene. They were house show fixtures and regularly opened for larger, national acts at dark and dingy—and I mean that as a compliment—venues like Blackwater Bar, Portland’s all-ages punk beacon par excellence.
Last year, Growing Pains released Winter Broke, a terrific two-song EP brimming with promise and youthful exuberance. Growing Pains’ brand new single, “Houseboat,” finds the band sounding slightly more realized and confident—it’s a brilliantly-arranged, full-throttle blast of cathartic Weezer-core, replete with “guitarmonies” and a “Born to Run” indebted glockenspiel breakdown. “Houseboat” is further proof that rock music sounds best when it’s written and performed by young people. And it makes me miss live music. Like, a lot.
Ghost Pop / “Vol. 4 & Vol. 5”
A few years ago, Aaron Liu sang and played guitar in Two Moons, a terrific Portland indie rock band. That group’s last, official release—the EP Strings—blended the ramshackle jangle of early Teenage Fanclub and Velvet Crush with the breezy lo-fi ambience of Ariel Pink’s earlier work. They were also one of Portland’s best live bands.
Two Moons have been broken up for over two years now, but Liu continued to release terrific music under his solo moniker, Ghost Pop. He released two great collections in 2020 alone: Vol. 4, which was released back in February on the eve of the pandemic, harks back to the pining power pop Liu perfected in Two Moons, and songs like “A Clue” and “Lost in the Driveway” sound like classic Byrds singles being beamed to Earth from lightyears away. Vol. 5 finds Liu exploring an entirely different musical aesthetic, and swaps the blown-out, chiming Stratocasters for chilly reverb and sampled percussion. Taken as a whole, Vol. 4 and Vol. 5 are further proof that Liu is one of the most versatile and adventurous composers in town.
Tuesday Faust / “Killed the Cat”
There’s something uniquely special about a good debut album; the listener has no preconceived notions, and the music can’t be cheapened by comparisons to earlier work. Portland singer-songwriter Tuesday Faust’s debut LP Killed the Cat is one such album—it came out of nowhere, and it’s completely staggering.
Faust’s music blends the candor of Either/Or era Elliott Smith with the twee whimsy of the Sarah Records canon. Her honeyed falsetto recalls a slightly shyer Harriett Wheeler, and her knack for grafting bitter millennial quotables and quirky instrumentation onto familiar indie pop structures makes for songs that sound both timely and timeless.
Pete Krebs / “All My Friends Are Ghosts”
At age 54, Portland indie luminary Pete Krebs has already lived several lives. He cut his teeth playing in the grunge-adjacent alternative rock band Hazel, whose albums were issued by Sub Pop in the early ‘90s. In 1994, he released the classic Shytown / No Confidence Man split 7” with Elliott Smith—a record now considered a Holy Grail-caliber artifact by Discogs geeks and connoisseurs of the city’s musical history.
In Portland music circles, Pete Krebs is a household name—though he’s not content merely resting on his laurels, of which there are many. In recent decades, Krebs has developed a city-wide reputation as a tireless performer; he’s a staple of the mid-tier club circuit, playing as many as 250 local shows a year. It’s a little surprising, then, that his latest LP—the freshly released All My Friends Are Ghosts—is his first full-length in almost two decades. But it was well worth the wait—Ghosts highlights Krebs’ virtuosic ability at evoking diverse musical styles, and his songwriting is impeccable no matter what idiom he’s working with.