Juggling professional commitments with an artistic life, while trying to figure out whether to go all-in on either end, is a struggle many young musicians face.
"That's part of why it took so long to make it," Ports of Spain's Sam Carlson says of "Tea Leaf Bloom," his band's third self-released collection of songs. "We weren't sure if we were ever going to finish it. We weren't sure if we wanted to keep playing shows. … At the end of it we definitely were thinking: We actually want to do this."
Ports of Spain, a New Haven band, is just two guys — singer and drummer Carlson and guitarist Ilya Gitelman — so what it does musically, live and on recordings, bumps up against that limitation.
On stage, using effects and loops, Gitelman re-creates parts he played in the studio — sinewy chord progressions, sub-octave bass riffs, surf-rock strumming patterns and arpeggios — without necessarily being constricted by them, and also sings. Carlson croons bright melodies, plays tom-driven beats, bashes cymbals and works a keyboard with one hand. Each man's routine is a tightrope act, synchronized with the other's.
"It's a lot of considering how we can get the song to sound as full as possible with just the two of us," Carlson says. "Writing is the easy part, and the arranging can take a while."
"Tea Leaf Bloom" begins and ends with short fragments, each under a minute long: "The Girl Who Ate a Dictionary" introduces Gitelman's advanced harmonic sense and Carlson's lyrical gymnastics ("To slit the throats of rarer beasts like 'balustrade,' like 'polyurethane'"), and "Ever Closer" closes the EP with chiming guitar layers and a single utterance from Carlson: "I hope it scares you, this grim insistent feeling."
On the four songs in between, you sense the surgical skill needed to make the arrangements work: "Tea Leaf Bloom," the title track, layers a drone together with a descending lydian-mode melody (double-tracked) and full-bore rock chords, while "Brother" adds a garage-rock feel and a brutal, Jack White-style riff in its middle section.
"Pleasantry Demands" opens with Carlson singing: "I don't want to wake up yet, I'm tired/There's a cold rain spitting down outside"; later, where other bands might tack on a third verse, Carlson and Gitelman conclude with shimmering, multi-tracked vocals.
"Water From a Wheel," the least linear track on the EP, begins with jaunty music-hall swing and a syncopated melody, then morphs into a wordless, three-measure phrase that piles up into a climax of weirdness and white noise.
Carlson met Gitelman in 2010 in a piano practice space at Southern Connecticut State University.
"Ilya heard me and felt like he should walk in," Carlson says. They went through dozens of band names. "Finally, we played a show where people liked us, and at that point we were Ports of Spain."
In December of that year, Ports of Spain released "Winter's Teeth," a three-song EP; "Oh, Surrender" followed in 2012. The band played shows in upstate New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and in the South, eventually booking longer regional tours.
"We'd been around for a while, but I don't think we started taking it seriously, trying to push it and make it a long-term thing until about a year and a half ago," Carlson says.
"Tea Leaf Bloom" was released in December of 2015, but it took longer than expected.
"We were originally doing it with some friends of ours in New York, going back and forth constantly to work on it," Carlson said. "It wasn't really working that well for us, and we weren't excited with how it was sounding." There was a fire in the band's rehearsal space, where Carlson was also living at the time.
A friend named Sam Stauff (Wess Meets West) offered to re-record the drums at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.. Another friend, Pat Dalton, helped them record new guitar parts; both men get credit as producers.
"One by one we re-recorded every piece of the original record," Carlson says. "'Water From a Well' had something like 50 tracks. Pat did a lot of work on that ending, putting in noises and bouncing springs and stuff like that in the background."
Now that it's finished, Carlson and Gitelman hope to build on the momentum of "Tea Leaf Bloom" by releasing more new music in 2016.
"When you put something out, people pretty much forget about it, because something else is coming out," Carlson says. "There is a lot of pressure to constantly have content. But we perform in a weird way, so our writing process takes a long time."
Ports of Spain plays two Connecticut shows this month, the first at New Haven's Cafe Nine on Saturday, Feb. 20, with Bent Knee, Kindred Queer and Olive Tiger ($5); and again on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at Fairfield Theatre Company's StageOne, with the Felice Brothers ($28). Purchase "Tea Leaf Bloom" at portsofspain.bandcamp.com.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is a new column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to email@example.com.