Meet John Nels, Under City Lights

Shining on Portland
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  December 7, 2011

I HEAR HIM KNOCKING He’s already here.
It's fairly amazing how many musicians from the county make their way down here to the Big City — last week it was Travis Cyr traveling this way for a CD release show. This week recent émigré John Nels, whom you might know from his work holding down the Empire's Couch on Sunday nights, releases his first full-length since his move to town (he's a Caribou boy, at heart) and his seventh overall (not that I've heard them).

Under City Lights is very much an album of place. The title tracks, part one and two, that bookend the album reference Monument Square and Commercial Street and a portrait of Portland city life that includes blacked out girls being escorted home and a search for a true and honest friend. "A man from New Sweden" is the protagonist of "Port Rock City" (a Dixieland mix of southern rock and vamp). Nels even references "the couch" on "Dear Employer," but maybe it's just any old couch where he smokes a bowl.

He even riffs off various Portland sounds, including a heavy influence from fellow County alums Dominic and the Lucid, particularly with Nels's taste for falsetto and soaring reverb. The sound at its core is a mix of R&B and rock, with some jam flavor and some alt-country. There's definitely a Jacob Augustine feel to "Continue on the Good Fight," when he's all high up in the reverbed vocals, but then he crashes into a decent rocker with a solid chorus: "It's in these times we all need to heal/The believe that we're just as strong as steel/We'll carry on."

At other times, you might hear some Bono, maybe even Meatloaf, or a tone like a sped-up Damien Rice. The songs aren't generally pure verse-chorus, with some interesting arrangements and unexpected ducks and dives. Playing everything but the drums himself (Chuck Gagne holds those down), Nels does a good job of creating some expansive jams (like the play-out on that closing track) without going too overboard with the multi-tracking, though there are certainly times when it's unclear why all of the parts are necessary for the song's success.

Could these songs be bigger? More stripped-down? One taste might wish them more compact. Another might yearn for them to sprawl more openly. They feel just a little unfinished, like Nels is waiting for some collaboration to take them in whatever direction they might dictate live. Which can work all right in a place like Portland.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at

UNDER CITY LIGHTS | Released by John Nels | as part of Cover to Cover | at the Big Easy, in Portland | Dec 20 |

  Topics: CD Reviews , Music, Travis Cyr, Bono,  More more >
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