Sometimes you have to wonder just how many really good bands there are in cities across the country. How many hidden gems are there, in Toledo, or Cedar Rapids, or Winston Salem, or Billings? I am certain there’s a charming indie songwriter, magnetic hip hop MC or great metal band in each of those cities, just as there are several of each of those in the Portland area.
Such is the case with Foam Castles, a Portland-based indie rock band built around the songs of Tyler Jackson, who is also a member of the harder-edged Endless Jags. Foam Castles are one of those bands you might point to when showing someone from out of town the kinds of bands that play in Portland, just to show that we have that kind of indie rock here.
Their new album, “Flotilla,” the band’s fourth in five years, plays upon all the band’s strengths: chiming, melodic pop songwriting, with flashes of psychedelia and with a faint undercurrent of anxiety, owing a debt simultaneously to both early R.E.M. and to the Zombies. But where the previous album, “Through That Door,” traded in a more shimmering, upbeat, amped-up brand of psychedelic indie rock, however, “Flotilla” is a decidedly less energetic beast — moodier and often more spare in its instrumentation, less chiming, bright-eyed and overtly fun. “Flotilla” — at least in the first half of the album — could at times do with a shot in the arm. A few of the songs here stretch out at a pace leisurely enough that it starts to feel less like the psych-pop album it wants to be, and a bit more of an indie folk songwriter album, despite the fact that Jackson is so skilled at the former.
But when these songs do hit, Jackson nails it, like on “Bullseye Bunny,” which floats around some irresistible minor chords and a bass line that almost wants to be funky, one of the album’s several highlights. Elsewhere on the album, the big, crispy acoustic strumming of “Detail,” the echoing guitar lines of “The Least We Can Do,” and the roiling, in-your-face synths of “Chicken” are all vital cuts. It’s on songs like these that Jackson, as a songwriter, feels at his most vital, reaching for those oddball melodic heights of, say, Robyn Hitchcock, or Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. “Flotilla” is a bit uneven, yes, but that’s not to say that Jackson isn’t an extremely talented songwriter. When he hits his mark, he’s certainly one of those Maine artists you want to show off when your friends when they visit from Toledo or Cedar Rapids or Winston-Salem or Billings.