Federale has spent the better part of 15 years carving out a pleasant niche in the music scene of Portland and beyond. It’s a fantasy world where spaghetti Westerns play nonstop in a dusty drive-in theater and Lee Hazlewooad is still holding court in an LA recording studio. In other words: The gently psychedelic country ensemble led by Brian Jonestown Massacre member Collin Hegna has boxed itself in to an aesthetic that can’t be escaped without taking some calculated risks.
What Federale does, it does very well. The group’s fifth studio album No Justice bears that out with 10 songs that hew to a formula of ’60s film music and the tanked spirit of outlaw country. They get every last detail right: rubbery basslines and well-placed percussion accoutrements; spectral melodies provided by pedal steel, whistling, or the wordless vocals of Maria Karlin; a backdrop of strings played by members of the Oregon Symphony. It’s lustrous and rich and exactly what you’d expect.
What keeps No Justice from falling into utter torpor are the little flourishes—the nasty guitar tone that pops through “Aim for the Heart” and the steely dulcimer within “Heidi Theme”—and welcome left turns like “Trouble,” a dense and lightly funky tune that marries the mood of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson with Nick Cave’s ’90s-era temptations.
There’s only so much longer that Federale can keep riding this same line. The band is at, or nearing, the peak of its commercial powers, thanks to its music being placed in big films (The LEGO Movie) and plum gigs like a recent spot at Levitation Fest in Austin, Texas, opening for John Cale. For now, basking in the sultry heat that Federale stirs up so ably feels great, but if the band has any hope of keeping up that temperature, some thoughtful evolution needs to take place. No Justice is a fine, if hesitant first step on that path.