Early Portlandia: Garage-Pop 1991-95
Portlandia, the comedy show from Fred Armisen and riot grrl legend Carrie Brownstein, is back for its fourth season. Its gently mocking sketches of the city—and specifically, the town’s fetishization of its own hipster subculture—has plenty to do with the town’s musical legacy (and not just because Brownstein and her Sleater-Kinney bandmates called Portland home, in their final years of activity). So we figured it was as good a time as any to leap back to the early era of Portland exceptionalism, with a mix of weirdly endearing garage-rock and indie-pop, dating from the early 1990s.
While grunge was dominating Seattle, Portland’s musical sound was more varied. You could argue that contemporary Portlandia had its beginnings around the same time—when an all-ages nightclub called the X-Ray Cafe booked violin trios, noise groups, sunny pop acts (as well as some of the big grunge-world strivers), in what made for a come-one, come-all atmosphere for the town’s indie community.
Click play on our attached mix, and you’ll hear a bit of twee joking around—including the charming New Bad Things track “Josh Has a Crush on a Femme from Reed,” which affectionately satirized the Portland scene about 15 years ahead of the IFC show. And you’ll also catch the tuneful queercore punk of Team Dresch, and early local hits by Elliott Smith (recorded with his band Heatmiser)—in addition to boy/girl indie duos like the Spinanes and Quasi.
Eventually, some of these artists went national (like Everclear, who appear on one of the two seminal I-5 Killers compilations that figure in our playlist). But even the bands who never made it out of Stumptown are worth a hearing—especially Dead Moon (who made clear on “Sorrow’s Forecast” that their dreams were purposefully small-time). The X-Ray closed in 1994, and bands like Crackerbash and Hazel are long since gone. But the sound of Portlandia—a touch bummed out, a little proud of itself, and even happier to laugh at those qualities—still endures.