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A ramshackle vision

Portable Disko's oddball charm emerges in confounding trips

Nathan Gibson makes experimentalism fun with Portable Disko. Photo credit: Facebook

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When I first discovered The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, it was an eye-opening experience. I had only recently begun digging into music in earnest, and so I was floored to be confronted with this candy-coated pop opera fronted by what I assumed was a madman (recent events have confirmed this about Wayne Coyne, though not necessarily in a good way). Even more staggering was my first time listening to the Flaming Lips' earlier masterpiece, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, which I grew to love even more than The Soft Bulletin.

With its ramshackle charm and lack of a unifying vision, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is in some ways on the opposite end of the spectrum from The Soft Bulletin. While Transmissions doesn't have the pristine polish of The Soft Bulletin, it more than makes up for it with madness, deftly balancing psychedelic mind-f@#&* and disarmingly earnest emotion - a combination that the Flaming Lips would go on to master. Stylistically, the album is all over the shop, bouncing from the motorik pulse of "When Yer Twenty-Two" to the absurdly lo-fi folk of "Plastic Jesus" to the imposingly giant sound of "Moth in the Incubator" to the bubblegum nonsense of surprise hit "She Don't Use Jelly."

If that album's influence can be felt anywhere, it's in the willingness of later generations of musicians to embrace experimentalism without sacrificing relatability. Psychedelic rock doesn't need to melt brains to be affective, the Flaming Lips seemed to be saying; rather, you can be as weird as you want and still train your phasers directly on the listeners' hearts. Portable Disko seems to have learned these lessons.

While there is a revolving stable of collaborators who sometimes work on Portable Disko's recordings, the project is nominally the work of Olympia artist Nathan Gibson. Formerly known as the Various Moods Of, Portable Disko is a considerably prolific project, releasing numerous albums a year in varying styles, experimenting with genre and recording techniques. Gibson's last album, Answerin' Machine, was apparently made piecemeal, as he would hand off the songs one at a time to a woman working for a music label that he hoped to impress. As the album title would suggest, snippets of voice messages are folded into the sprawling album, which combines buzzing synths with lo-fi electronica and hip-hop beats to create a quietly groovy sound collage.

On the other hand, sometimes Gibson gives you things like his oddball cover of "Maggie's Farm," which remains fairly faithful to Bob Dylan's original, while dressing up the guitar and harmonica with warbly fuzz and laying a squawking vocoder over Gibson's nasal vocals. Then you have the soundtrack that Portable Disko recorded for an eight-minute animated short called Tarotpia; the six spacy songs are almost all under a minute long, except for the first track, which clocks in at a bewildering 35 minutes. One gets the sense that Gibson gets these itches that he simply must scratch, which sometimes results in him dirtying up a Bob Dylan classic, and sometimes finds him recording a half-hour long song for an eight-minute movie.

All along the way, the oddness of Portable Disko manages to never keep you at arms' length. Gibson wants you to join him on little aural excursions, the destinations of which he might not even know. But the journey is paramount to the enjoyment you get when listening to any of Portable Disko's confounding trips. Sharing the stage with Portable Disko at this mid-week psych event will be the considerably heavier Dark Palms and Coffee Pot. It'll be a Wednesday evening stroll for your mind.

PORTABLE DISKO, w/ Dark Palms, Coffee Pot, 9 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, $5, Obsidian, 414 E. 4th Ave., Olympia, 360.890.4425

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