5 Portland Bands You Need to Hear Now

These incendiary acts may be new to the scene, but they’ve already locked into solid grooves of their own. Best of all, you can still catch them at intimate venues—but probably not for long.

By Ryan White May 1, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

No single sound defines portland. Our musicians plumb and push the musical spectrum. Genres? We perfect them, blend them, invent them. Some of that intrepid talent finds a sweet spot on the national stage: Typhoon tours nonstop; Liv Warfield set Jimmy Fallon on fire in January; Broken Bells’ After the Disco debuted at no. 5 on Billboard. Need help navigating the next generation of musical voyagers? Here are five of our favorites, complete with music videos and a playlist.

Shy Girls

Debuted: 2011

Origin: Armed with a background in classic-rock cover bands and a love of “feel-good music” à la Jimmy Buffett and Michael McDonald, Dan Vidmar (far right) posted songs he crafted on his laptop online in 2011, under two names. The Jimmy and Michael–inspired “Federer” drew little more notice than a warm margarita. The 1991-easy-listening-elevator-riding “Shy Girls” blew up, landing him Willamette Week’s Best New Band title last year.

Latest record: Timeshare, a six-song EP released October 2013 that made multiple year-end lists. Its songs have also recently soundtracked ABC’s Nashville and Showtime’s House of Lies.

Sounds like: A late-era Miami Vice love scene: polished, sincere, and humid R&B held together with synths and hip-hop beats

Hear this: In February, Billboard debuted Vidmar’s cover of Brandy’s 1995 hit “Sittin’ Up in My Room.” Brandy made the song a sweetly told tale of teenage yearning. Vidmar reimagined it as something closer to the thoughts of a lonely stalker, and added sampled gunshots for a little extra creep. 

On stage: “I’ve never really made the band aspect a priority in how I record,” Vidmar says, though he does add three musicians to the mix when he plays live (from left: Noah Bernstein, Ingmar Carlson, Akila Fields). Which doesn’t mean he ditches the laptop—or weird samples from YouTube. 

In 2014: A five-week spring tour opening for Haim; then more touring, including a local appearance at MusicfestNW in August. “I’ve been writing a lot,” Vidmar says. “Not necessarily for a full-length, but probably for a full-length.”

Scott Pemberton Trio

Debuted: 2010

Origin: The Portland native mostly made his living teaching guitar (currently at Reed College) before playing his first festival stage as a late addition to 2012’s Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival. His virtuosic, multigenre playing earned him a better time slot and a bigger crowd the following year. Next, he was a hit at the High Sierra Music Festival in Northern California (his debut record SP3 subsequently landed on Billboard’s Tastemaker Chart). Since then the shows have only gotten bigger and the tours longer. Pemberton says his band put 40,000 miles on its van in the last year.

Latest record: Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin produced Pemberton’s second album, Sugar Mama, in 2012.

Sounds like: What you imagine you sound like when you’re playing air guitar

Hear this: The live show. Berlin says no one plays guitar like Pemberton. After the avid cyclist’s back was broken in a collision with a car, Pemberton found himself unable to stand and hold his guitar. Now he holds the instrument low, or high, or sets it on a stool and taps at it like a piano. These techniques add both difficulty and humor to his playing, plus a touch of cool stagecraft.

In 2014: A new album, also produced by Berlin, is nearly finished. And the touring will continue, while Portland jazz guitarist Dan Balmer fills in as substitute in Pemberton’s classes. 

Magic Mouth

Debuted: 2011

Origin: After Chanticleer Trü (far left) moved to town in 2010 to pursue music, he told someone at a party he was a singer. The guy said, “Sing something!” Trü sang, and the impressed new friend introduced him to guitarist Peter Condra (near left) and drummer Ana Briseño. With bassist Brendan Scott, they had a band.

Latest record: Devil May Care, a four-song EP released September 2013

Sounds like: Your favorite punk band, beaten by a stack of disco, funk, and soul records. (Possibly the assailant was Nina Simone.) 

Hear this: The EP’s opener, “Swampy Seconds,” kicks off with Trü shouting, “Ain’t you got no shame?” and then blasts into a full-throttle get-down. The live performance? Even hotter. No wonder Gossip scooped the band up and took them on tour. 

Cred: While opening for Gossip, Magic Mouth kicked off its song “Speak Softly After Dark” (a song about control) with the refrain from Prince’s “Pussy Control,” and Briseño wore an orange mask in homage to the Russian musical dissidents Pussy Riot. Electric. 

In 2014: The band will release new singles on a split 7-inch vinyl record with Thelma and the Sleeze in late summer, followed by a debut full-length album inspired by the work of writer James Baldwin later in the year.

Lost Lander

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Debuted: 2011

Origin: Singer-songwriter-forester Matt Sheehy (pictured) was playing guitar in Ramona Falls, a band Brent Knopf started as a break from his former band Menomena. Sheehy invited Knopf to apply his considerable studio skills to a new collection of Sheehy’s songs. They built an expansive world of old-growth themes (love found, love lost) and digital precision, and then brought in keyboardist Sarah Fennell (now Sheehy’s girlfriend, left), and two others to play it.

Latest record: DRRT, released January 2012

Sounds like: The planetarium learned to play guitar and write a catchy hook.

Hear this: “Afraid of Summer,” which, unbeknownst to Sheehy, had been getting airplay in Russia. He found out during a recent show in Moscow when the crowd overwhelmed him by singing along. “The promoter was upset,” Sheehy says. “He was like, ‘Why did you play that song at the beginning of the set?’ I said, ‘You should have told me.’”

Pairs well with: “Genesis, Invisible Touch,” Sheehy says. “I think it’s one of the greatest records ever made. I at least try to go for Phil Collins’s sense of totally nonironic, earnest pop.”

In 2014: Sheehy and Knopf have been busy on the follow-up to DRRT. They’re still asking pals to improvise parts and testing the songs live. “This time around it feels more like there’s an identity,” Sheehy says. 

Natasha Kmeto

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Debuted: 2009

Origin: Kmeto once wanted to be a traditional R&B artist—which makes sense, considering a voice that Spin compared to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Then she was exposed to digital production at LA’s Musicians Institute and found she preferred producing her own music. She released her first album in 2009 and followed it up with two more before her breakthrough last year.

Latest record: Crisis, released June 2013

Sounds like: The party at the club, the after-party at a different club, and the bedroom after that: a night to remember

Hear this: Take “Idiot Proof” as evidence of Kmeto’s seductiveness. She’s a gateway drug to electronic music, serving up all the snaps and pops and dance-floor pulse, with undeniably soulful vocals.

What worked: “I need peace, from all the things I’m supposed to be,” she sings on “Idiot Proof.” If there’s a difference between Crisis and her earlier records—a reason for attention from Spin and Pitchfork and the other arbiters of cool—it’s that Kmeto found that peace. She wrote the album quickly, in the midst of an intense relationship. “I feel like I found my identity as a person in a lot of ways,” she says. 

In 2014: More touring and recording, including Oregon’s What the Festival (June 19–22). Kmeto just signed to a new label called Federal Prism, run by Dave Sitek from TV On The Radio, and will release a new album later this year. 

Kmeto plays the Star Theater on May 10

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