illustration by Josh Gates
I just recently discovered the music of Portland local Mo Troper after seeing him perform at The Fixin’ To’s Elliott Smith 50th Birthday Celebration last summer. Classics from XO and Either/Or were played and I was impressed at how he kept the emotion of Smith’s songs at the forefront while filtering them through his own fuzzy guitar and energetic vocals.
While Troper may be new to me, he’s a mainstay in Portland’s indie rock scene with multiple projects to his name. Visiting those records after the Elliott Smith show, I found some charming and well-crafted songs. But there was an electricity within the live performance I was still seeking, which I was pleased to find captured in Troper’s third solo album, Natural Beauty. It releases February 14th and is Troper’s first release on indie label Tender Loving Empire. The sharp lyrics and beautifully realized arrangements make it his best yet.
Troper began the record after moving back to Portland, and Natural Beauty sounds like the start of a new chapter for the artist. His gift for building up memorable melodies has been evident throughout his previous work, but Natural Beauty has refined the details of everything else. Troper’s vocals are distinct and powerful on the album, his expansive vocal range on full display. The instrumental arrangements, carefully written by Troper himself, make much of the difference here. Strings, horns, harp, and more thoughtfully adorn the album in moderation, the arrangements weaving the various sounds together to serve the song most effectively. The album thus manages to be Troper’s most consistent and entertaining power-pop outing yet, while sounding surprisingly timeless.
Turning his focus inward, Troper’s storytelling is often straightforward and confessional. His lyrics conceal more specificity and thoughtfulness than their bright and catchy first impressions may suggest. The album opens with “I Eat,” one of the album’s most distinct accomplishments. The song is a smartly constructed reflection on binge eating that builds to a bombastic musical climax in the moment that it slips unexpectedly to a scene from the past: “The kid who did all his homework on friday night, / at the mercy of his appetite, / I eat, I eat, I eat.”
Single “In Love With Everyone” is another stand-out, with an ear-worm chorus Troper belts in a strained falsetto reminiscent of James Mercer’s poppiest compositions. “Your Boy” opens with a riff that would feel at home on a song by The Cure; various flourishes across the album contain shades of everything from 60s surf to 2000s pop punk, the Beatles to Built to Spill.
“Lucky Devils” is one of the most infectious and bubbly songs on the album with a dark take on Troper’s complicated relationship with Portland. “You’ll never find a city with so much natural beauty, and so we kicked all the poor people out,” taking a jab at the hypocrisies of Portland that all too many citizens are so willing to ignore. “I fell asleep and I woke up in hell,” he croons, a line that will be stuck in your head all day.
Troper certainly presents reason to be jaded or bitter amongst all the beautiful sounds on the album, but sentiment keeps seeping in. The short interlude “Everything” is one of the loveliest moments. Backed by only the gentle “ooo”-ing of harmonizing voices, Troper sings a simple love song: “Winter, fall, summer spring / at the mall or in the rain / when I’m with you it’s all the same. / You’re everything. You’re everything.” The version of Troper present on Natural Beauty seems willing to let the rough edges smooth out as the years continue to pass. He’s just as interested in examining his past self with a compassionate gaze as he is in confronting the outside world anymore.
Beautiful, slower moments such as “Everything” and “Business As Usual” left me wishing for a few more mid-tempo tunes, but the album benefits from not overstaying its welcome. It moves with a good editor’s focus through a variety of ideas and sounds in just under 32 minutes and left me wanting more. Natural Beauty seizes upon the skill and potential that Troper has cultivated thus far; and if the stars align, there is a wider audience primed to connect with this album. Someone get him an opening slot on a big indie rock tour this year and thousands more will be humming “Jas From Australia” to themselves in no time.
Mo Troper’s album Natural Beauty comes out Feb 14th 2020
Release show Feb 16th at Holocene, $10, 8p.m., 21+