PORTABLE RADIO – Counting To Three

The self-titled debut album from Portable Radio was one of 2021’s more welcome surprises. Coming at the end of a year where most people not employed as a Conservative MP spent most of their time rattling around indoors, the British band’s brand of retro music hit like a little ray of sunshine, piercing through the gloom. Their big single ‘Should’ve Bounced’ – a tune loaded with stabbed pianos and chiming guitars – gave a good indication of the album’s finer wares with its infectious pop inspired by Jeff Lynne but, even deeper into a great record, the Portable Radio brand of retro pop held firm. With other tunes tapping into the same influences beloved by Teenage Fanclub, and material sounding like a marriage between The early 70s Hollies and the poppier end of Supergrass, the album offered something great for most lovers of AM radio inspired pop.

This second album is pretty much as strong but, as all great follow ups should, it takes a couple of unexpected turns. The first of these occurs right at the beginning of the opening track, ‘I Feel Like A Dog’, when the piano leads the music off with a rattling pub-rock rhythm. It’s just a ruse, however; pretty quickly, the jangling keys drop into a classic power pop mood, whilst the rest of the tune works its way around them. The bass dances with glee throughout, lifting the vocal melody as it goes, and a descent into a slower pre-chorus brings forth some fine harmonies. A few loud 80s synths are an odd choice, but overall, this blend of third album Supergrass and Brendan Benson joyousness is a fine way to kick everything off.

Reaching for something a little more organic, acoustic guitars and electric piano provide the heart of ‘Not Today’, a tribute to early 70s sunshine pop where a smooth and honeyed feel leans a little further towards a light entertainment sound. True to form, even when armed with something a little more “easy listening”, the band explore some great musical flourishes . The lead guitars take on a jazzy lilt, and the lead vocal melody floats above bell-like keys with ease. Like 10cc and Badfinger at their most serene, this plays like a perfect light pop jam, and the lead vocal is one of the album’s most satisfying. Sure, it’s all pretty cheesy, but like Lojinx signings Astral Drive, the pure love of the retro style shines through every note. A little rockier, ‘Chas & Morph’ aims squarely at the hearts of a generation of British listeners with a quirky lyric name checking the legendary plasticine characters. Musically, Portable Radio channel Teenage Fanclub with a wall of harmonies decorating some unashamed 60s pop, and as before, the bass plays a crucial role in gluing together some great melodies. The high toned lead vocals are terrific, and the overall mood is lovely, so its a pity that the chosen keyboard sound comes across as a little low-budget with a very thin quality. That doesn’t spoil a well written pop tune, but it certainly isn’t as stylish as the piano employed elsewhere.

Offering another twist on a familiar sound, ‘Rolling Hills’ shares some very tightly arranged and very appealing vocals on a slice of lounge pop that sounds like a fusion of old Andrew Gold material and The 1957 Tail-Fin Fiasco. In some ways, its nice to hear Portable Radio branching out into more of a lounge sound, and probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but the rhythmic click track used throws a little too much focus on the recording’s DIY origins, even though its actually authentic for the style in question. On the plus side, the stripped down arrangement casts more of a spotlight on some great harmonies, sometimes sounding as if Brendan Benson has stepped in to share the job. A few plays allows for the weaker elements to become less obvious, and this number can eventually be chalked up as “quirky”. A return to form, ‘Fancy Like Champagne’ boosts the happy piano based pop with a melodic counterpoint of parping brass, whilst harmony vocals and handclaps stoke up the power pop core. There’s almost a glam-ish feel to the track when a fuzzy guitar solo arrives, but even though this throws a light onto something a touch rockier, the pop heart beats furiously, ensuring a good time is guaranteed. It’s certainly a contender for one of the album’s best tracks, but ‘Counting To Three’ actually offers a couple of even better Portable Radio tunes. One of those, ‘Past Downtown’ explores more of a US-centric yacht rock sound. By decreasing the tempo but increasing the electric piano quotient, Portable Radio’s love of a light and laid back vibe shines through. Sometimes sounding like a distant cousin to the brilliant Andrew Gold in a very mellow mood, this tune is in no rush to get to its destination – and is all the better for it. It fills a hazy five and a half minutes exploring a fine vocal and keyboard combo, invoking the musical equivalent of a summer’s day and slowly rolling tide, until deciding to gradually increase the volume, adding more harmonies and some very retro synths for a very 70s climax.

Another lounge oriented number, ‘Maybe Then Tonight’ fares much better than ‘Rolling Hills’ by virtue of a jazzy guitar tone and increased harmonies. There are moments when the tune could be mistaken for an old Pilot workout; at other times, a faint influence from Wings infuses a great backing harmony. Most of the time, though, the track celebrates Portable Radio’s love of old pop in their own way. As with the best tunes here, the piano melodies are very strong, and the blend of warm bass and warmer harmonies boosts a finely hewn, classic style. It’s all good, but when horns make an unexpected appearance for the closing bars, you get the feeling that Portable Radio know they’ve created something a bit special. Another burst of jangling indie pop in the 90s mould lifts the middle of the album, when ‘A Song That You Know’ takes a tongue in cheek swipe at the familiarity of the pop rock style in hand. With a cheeky wordless hook, a nod to Jason Falkner and a huge love for a tight groove, this wavers between a knowing smugness and downright infectiousness, but if listeners wanted to understand what makes this band tick in just a little over two minutes, it’s a great primer.

As fun as most of those tracks are, it’s with ‘Good News’ that things really click into place and Portable Radio’s abilities become self evident. A McCartney-esque rumpty tumpty rhythm allows a complex lead bass to bounce around the arrangement yet again, but it’s a bright sounding piano and vocal that dominate. In power pop terms, it’s a slice of songwriting perfection, with an optimistic lead joined by a wall of harmonies, mixing the obviously Jellyfish-esque with swathes of Brian Wilson’s sunny cool. For lovers of the Portable Radio debut, this will be an instant standout, but in many ways, it actually improves on the band’s sound. The way the harmonies weave in and out of the rhythm suggests a budget and studio time that’s far greater than the reality; the track’s lift into a middle eight gives a great pop number an even bigger feelgood factor, and its simple hook will definitely stand among the era’s greatest power pop numbers. The fact that the opening melody sounds like something Gilbert O’Sullivan might have explored circa ’72 increases the AM radio cheese factor in the best possible way, and although this is very much a product of the studio, it’s an absolutely stellar pop track. …And by clocking in at exactly three minutes, it’s like Portable Radio have written it exactly to the perfect AM radio specifications. That’s talent!

If you sort of lost faith in The Feeling somewhere around their third album and never get tired of hearing the influence of Jellyfish working its magic – no matter how faintly in places – then ‘Counting To Three’ is an album you should check out. It mightn’t be better than the Portable Radio debut, but it has just enough variety within its songs and enough differences from prior works to suggest the sound of a backwards-looking band moving forward. Between ‘Good News’, ‘Not Today’ and ‘Past Downtown’, the album has a trio of tunes that aren’t to be missed, and elsewhere, everything is still of a high standard – enough for these dozen chorus driven tunes to be considered another great round of shamelessly retro pop. A very welcome return.

August 2023