The Drums’ musical formula is fairly straightforward and yet artfully delivered: surf-tinged new-wave revival dosed with gobs of lush reverb, paired with the suburban, middle-class pathos of Johnathan Pierce, the band’s lanky, somewhat unpredictable, and subtlely androgynous leadman, who lyricizes like Robert Smith but looks and sounds like Bernard Sumner. Both names are apt comparisons, as the Brooklynites’ 2010 self-titled debut played much like a composite of the Cure’s romanticism and New Order’s syncopated post-punk, presenting handclapping, finger-snapping pop with just a tinge of synthy embellishments and a lion’s share of adolescent angst. Decked out in a lovably dorky Buddy Holly aesthetic, the Drums’ entrance was ironic indie chic personified.
The band’s second full-length effort, Portamento, ditches none of the aforementioned charm, but it does find the Drums abandoning some of their more candid methods in favor of tapestry-like synthwork, vocal looping, and darker material; not quite reinvention, but a calculated pivot. It’s obvious from the first strains of opener “Book of Revelation” that guitars aren’t quite as naked or stranded in the mix, melodies are no longer instantly rewarding, and Pierce is much more interested in exploring his own personal desolation than dysfunctional romance—though there’s still plenty of that to go around. “Oh, Jon, you were the son of an evil man,” he moans in a slightly flat baritone, sounding like both the voice of his own conscience and an apologetic mother. “I know you hate yourself, but you’re not like him.” Clearly the Drums are charting far more macabre territory, albeit in a familiar vehicle.
Portamento succeeds apart from its bleaker tone though. The album trades accessbility for pace, far outstripping The Drums‘s quickly fading sprint with a slow, thick burn. Though that makes the album far less accessible (there’s nothing here as immediately catchy as tracks like “Let’s Go Surfing” or “Forever and Ever Amen”), it does make Portamento much more balanced than the frontloaded bearing of its predecessor. Stick around for the one-minute mark of “I Need a Doctor” (a long time to wait for a chorus by Drums’ standards) to hear the band deliver their mastery all at once: an incredibly hummable combination of despondent vocal samples, minimalist guitar, lightly snapping percussion, and Pierce delivering his trademark tongue-in-cheek gloom with aplomb. “I need a doctor,” he laments, “‘cuz even though I love ya, I don’t wanna kill ya.” The Drums are far too clever a band to suffer a sophomore slump, but Portamento does one better, dispelling any notion that they’re merely the flavor of the month.