Release Date: Oct 6, 2009
Record label: TBA
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Folk
Sparks fly on California band’s second album Port O’Brien’s second studio album sounds just fine coming out of computer speakers or iPod headphones, but the best way to appreciate these darkly ambient, heartily ramshackle indie-folk songs is around a campfire. Working with Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza, the band stitch together threads of hearty Pacific Northwest indie, West Coast rock, and rustic creak-folk to create a loose, at times uneasy intimacy that allows for murky ambience as well as raucous sing-alongs. Van Pierszalowski still strains earnestly, adding gravity to “Oslo Campfire” and “Sour Milk/Salt Water,” but it’s Cambria Goodwin—a greater presence here than on previous outings—sews the most intriguing patterns on “Tree Bones” and “High Without Hope 3,” her spectral vocals at times barely discernible but commanding in their otherworldliness.
Deep into the promotional cycle for All We Could Do Was Sing last summer, Port O’Brien played a show in East London with the similarly buzzed-about Dodos. I stumbled in only to catch the closing minutes of their set, as Van Pierszalowski stalked the stage in wild-eyed manner, gleefully inciting the crowd to scream along with him. threadbare finds the band deftly change tack, substituting said bravado for dreamy, bereavement-informed reverie.
Port O'Brien first snagged some online buzz several years ago with "I Woke Up Today", a loose, rickety, communal sing-along that played out like the progeny of California's new folkies and Arcade Fire's euphorics. One collection of EPs and two full albums later (and newly signed to TBD Records), the band has pretty much stayed the course, adding some orchestral flourishes to a few songs on new LP Threadbare, but generally hewing to its acoustic guitar/secular spiritual awakening formula. That steadiness includes recycling older songs like jangly Celtic jig-like "Tree Bones", which has now appeared on three different Port O'Brien releases.
Port O'Brien's 2007 debut helped established the nomadic collective in the upper tier of the wind-swept, Pacific Northwest folk scene. Like Fleet Foxes or Blitzen Trapper, the band's penchant for dreamy, reverb-heavy forays into the wilds of the rainy Northern California coastlines elicited numerous comparisons to indie folk demigods like Will Oldham and Jason Molina, and their blue collar day jobs (crabbers, bakers, and canners) brought an authenticity to the songs that most landlocked bands looking for the ocean in a cornfield with a conch shell lack. 2009's Threadbare follows in its predecessor's wet footsteps, and the death of a bandmember's sibling casts a long shadow over the project that sadly meshes beautifully with the outfit's sparsely delivered, yet emotionally rich sound.
Both blessing and curse for the west coast folk-pop band Port O'Brien is that they do have that one special song: the explosion of joy that is I Woke Up Today. Unfortunately, that song was on their previous album, All We Could Do Was Sing, and without that burst of vigour Threadbare is a little underpowered - it's full of strong supporting performances, but lacks the defining moment to pull it together. Leap Year is nearly there, and Calm Me Down is a pleasing ballad a la Band of Horses, but one yearns for the song that demands attention instead of diffidently wondering if, perhaps, you would care to listen.
By any standard, Port O’Brien’s sophomore LP, Threadbare, is a somber, introspective work, but it seems even more so when compared to the band’s rough and ragged debut, All We Could Do Was Sing. Sadly, there is a very good reason for this: the younger brother of band member Cambria Goodwin passed away earlier this year. Fittingly, she plays a more pronounced role on this album by splitting lead vocal duty with her life/music partner Van Pierszalowski.