WITH A WELL-DESERVED reputation for being pop purists, a smattering of tours throughout the country, and a dedicated following that can pack most any club in town to a fire marshal-disapproving capacity, the Dirty Mittens are in every way an established band. Well, almost every way. After five years spent integrating themselves into the fabric of Portland's musical culture, the Dirty Mittens still had no full-length recording to call their own. As is often the case, it was a money issue (they had none) and support factored in as well (they had no record label), so the band did what came naturally to them: play shows and attempt to become the finest live band Portland has ever seen.
"Because we didn't have a record, we had to really focus on our live show," explains the band's charismatic frontwoman, Chelsea Morrisey. "We'd play one local show a month and that's 45 minutes—I'd spend four hours a week practicing for that one 45-minute moment where people need to remember me because they don't have anything to take home. Pitchfork wasn't writing about us, we didn't have a single song on the internet, we had an old demo [the CD-R Pinky Swear], but we really had nothing."
While their peers turned bedroom recordings into vast discographies, Dirty Mittens perched idly by, waiting for something to happen. Soon enough Jim Brunberg of Mississippi Studios volunteered to record the album that would eventually become the just-released Heart of Town, but even as momentum shifted for Dirty Mittens it soon stalled again, as family matters and various business proceedings delayed the process. While the band dissected and reassembled recordings captured on tape in a cavernous, abandoned Masonic temple that Brunberg has access to, years tumbled by. "My patience was up, and there was a point when I was ready to move on for sure," says Morrisey, but her surrounding cast (Noah Jay-Bonn, Ben Hubbird, Patrick Griffin, Joshua Hawley, Ryan Hanzlik) helped her persevere.
Released by local indie Magic Marker, Heart of Town captures Dirty Mittens in the crux of a transformation—growing pains and all—as they evolve from a quaint pop act to a more dynamic band that has grown restless with the remedial song structures of yore. "Row" is what they do best, a swaying pop tune with a whistling backdrop that could put Peter Bjorn and John to shame. "Let it Go" is a sweltering soul number masquerading as a pop song, Morrisey's voice howling above a spattering of horns and rolling piano notes. Morrisey calls the album "an archive of who we were and who we've been," and she isn't afraid to admit that Dirty Mittens have outgrown some of their own songs during the empty years that accompanied the album's release.
That's not to imply the band isn't proud of Heart of Town—they are, as they should be—but at the core of Dirty Mittens is a collection of musicians who believe that there is more to a band than any single recording. "There are a lot of bands in this town who have bedroom recordings that have done really well, but their live shows, quite frankly, suck. We have a sense of urgency when we play live, like, 'We worked our asses off in rehearsal. Please remember us.'"