‘Luck’ is a funny old thing, especially in the often unforgiving world of music, although at the start of 2013, Derry’s Little Bear seemed to very much have it on their side. A bout of acute laryngitis in Two Door Cinema Club’s Alex Trimble saw Little Bear step in at the eleventh hour to replace the Bangor indie-poppers at 2013’s Other Voice’s Festival, and their show-stealing set paved the way for massive critical acclaim and a set of huge shows in Belfast’s Limelight and their home town’s Nerve Centre. Luck seemed to turn the other way fairly promptly though, as the band watched the support act for those dates, the then little-known Bray artist Andrew Hozier Byrne, surge to the top of the world’s pop charts, while potential copyright infringement saw the band having to change their name. Now under the PORTS moniker, their debut album The Devil Is A Songbird should see them establish themselves among Ireland’s elite.
The album’s opening, piano led instrumental ‘Sunrise’ gives way to the startling one-two of the stirring ‘Remedies’ and the aching ‘Great Heights.’ Singer Steven McCool’s impassioned vocals and the band’s trademark folky harmonies are still very much to the fore, although the chiming electric guitar and washy keyboards seem to betray the influence of Texan post-rock stalwarts Explosions In The Sky. The American band’s sweeping anthems provided a suitably emotional soundtrack to key moments in teen dramas Friday Night Lights and One Tree Hill throughout the 2000s, and PORTS have enjoyed similar success with lead single ‘Gameplay.’ The relationship turmoil of the song’s lyrics, delivered with McCool’s sweet falsetto, found it’s way into MTV hit Awkward, and if the comments section of the song’s video are anything to go by at least, the band appear to have garnered an international following.
Fans who have followed the band from the start will be buoyed by the inclusion of a number of Little Bear-era tracks on the LP. The acoustic strum-along of ‘I’d Let You Win’ and early favourite ‘Killer’ are largely unchanged from their original releases, with another much-loved Little Bear number becoming the album’s centrepiece: the title track, propelled by McCool’s whistling, unfolds gorgeously over it’s five and a half minutes. The track serves as a particular highlight of the band’s rare ability: it is at once wide emotive and nostalgic without being sentimental or forced, it’s widescreen sonic textures sounding both universal and deeply intimate. The same applies to ‘The Few and Far Between’, with the tinkling piano of the song’s opening leading to it’s massive singalong Tape you back, tape you back together’ chorus. Key to the band’s sound is not only McCool’s vocal abilities but also their collective strength as harmony singers. The band make good use of this throughout, particularly on the ethereal ‘Kingdom.’ The track’s understated instrumentation feels like a throwback to Fleet Foxes, and would not sound out of place on the Seattle group’s debut. Even more impressive indie-aping comes in the form of the intelligent arena rock ‘Ancient Wave’, whose suitably epic lyrics (‘across an ancient wave, I will call your name’) and pulsating, crashing band performance is almost eerily reminiscent of Arcade Fire, even down to McCool’s phrasing on the track mirroring Win Butler’s.
The Devil Is A Song Bird is a thrillingly confident set that serves as one of the most exciting Irish debuts in quite some time. The band have honed their sound over their short but eventful history to produce an album of earthy yet anthemic indie rock that blends their unique sensitivity with undoubted mass appeal. If fortune favours the brave, PORTS’ eclectic release should prove to be the catalyst for a sea change in the local scene, and beyond. Caolán Coleman