Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head – When the Lights Go Out

by Runyon Colie (History), published November 30th 2012

Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!

Though Seattle moved on from grunge sometime in the late ‘90s and has continued to be one of the country’s most vibrant regions for independent music throughout the last decade, public perception of the city in the rest of the nation has remained decidedly focused on the glory days, when the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam were wowing the public and shaking up the charts. Through the success of these bands and others like them—and despite the best efforts of more light-hearted acts like The Presidents of the United States—Seattle was branded a city whose attitude matched its rather damp climate. Though this ignored the well-developed twee scene that coalesced around K Records in the ‘80s and would be tested first by the rise of expansive Seattle area indie rockers like Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie and then by a burgeoning hip hop scene, no band has done more to redefine the possibilities inherent in Seattle music than pop act Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head.

NPSH’s first release, 2008’s Glistening Pleasure, was a sugary, rainbow infused gem, full of bouncing beats and ridiculous sing-alongs (i.e. “Me + Your Daughter” and “Sophisticated Sideways Ponytail.”) Though the band gained local notoriety for both their name and their sound, opening for the likes of CSS and Lily Allen, a four-year gap between albums and a name change (to Brite Futures) stalled the five-piece’s momentum and the band announced its split in May of 2012. Now, more than five months later, the group has released their final gift—a collection of 28 demos, b-sides, covers, and live tracks recorded over the course of the band’s existence called When the Lights Go Out.

Fans hoping for the collection to serve as a true third album of sorts are sure to be disappointed by its contents–many of the recordings are rough, and there aren’t really any cases in which listening to When the Lights Go Out’s demo versions of official tracks from Glistening Pleasure or Dark Past would be preferable, no matter how charming. There is something to be gained for the particularly voracious fan, as the demos give some insight into the songwriting and production process that went into Glistening Pleasures tracks “Holding Hands in the Shower” and “Slow Motion Tag Team,” but the demos are clearly first takes and none go above and beyond their final incarnations. Fans that have stuck with the band (and especially those who saw any of the group’s early shows) will be delighted by inclusion of a number of b-sides and staples of early appearances that were never fleshed out enough to get an official release, particularly the infamous “80 Packs of Fruit Snacks.” Unfortunately a number of these are so rough as to be nigh unlistenable (especially “Girls, Boys, & Parents”), but “Jelly Transmission (Song for Natalie)” (an ode to the band’s namesake), “Snowflakes (My Mind)”, and “Conversations About Water” (an improvised duet about water’s many benefits, or lack thereof), are particularly charming and work as perfectly legitimate tunes, if somewhat unprofessional.

Casual fans will be sure to enjoy the album’s final chapter, four tracks which were recorded during the band’s Brite Futures era. All four, from the two covers (of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” and The Supremes’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” – changed to “her” in this case) to the album’s penultimate “Do U Remember” are immaculately recorded and instantly listenable outside the context of When the Lights Go Out. “Do U Remember” is particularly good, an emotional distillation of the manner in which nostalgia intersects with hope for a bright future. Though its songs are celebratory, When the Lights Go Out has a certain melancholy to it and hints exist everywhere of the immense songwriting talent of frontman Luke Smith. The band is also incessantly charming, which makes the knowledge that its members were never able to achieve quite what they wanted particularly frustrating. Sometimes things don’t work out in the music business, and people who deserve everything are assured of nothing. Still, if this group of songs is the last thing Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head has to offer the world, it isn’t a bad way to go. As the band says, “Do you remember all those dreams you dreamed / that never came true oh what can you do? / Some plans you’ll never get around to. / Everywhere I go I know / That I won’t be there alone, / Cause you’re there in my memories. / And I can see you smile at night / If I close my eyes real tight you’re there, / Saying everything is going to be all right.”

Recommended Tracks: Do U Remember, Conversations About Water, 80 Packs of Fruit Snacks

One Response to “Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head – When the Lights Go Out”

  1. Sophie says:

    Excellent article! It’s refreshing to read something that fairly reflects the history of this great Seattle band as well as the merits of their new release (which is largely a behind the scenes view that should have remained behind the scenes–with the few fine exceptions that you mention). I am looking forward to hearing what the talented members of NPSH will produce as they move forward. BTW, one thing that made NPSH extraordinary was their ability to demonstrate genuine love and respect for their diverse fan base. Rare these days!