Review: Port O’Brien – Threadbare
(Posted at TheFourohFive.com)
If Port O’Brien’s first album, ‘All We Could Do Was Sing’, a raucous communal affair, was a pleasant summer holiday at the beach, then their second effort is the howling storm at sea – while ‘All We Could Do Was Sing’ conjured images of a shining sun, cawing seagulls and sand in your sandwiches, ‘Threadbare’ is a bleak, lonely, expansive affair – you can practically see the grey, stretching beach and feel the icy wind whipping against your face. Thematically, it veers close to the (equally wonderful) sophomore effort from Noah & The Whale – both encapsulate the transition from aching heartbreak to dull, dreary resignation, but while Noah and The Whale’s effort throbbed with fresh pain, ‘Threadbare’ is hardened– here heartbreak has festered into exhaustion rather than mournfulness.
And Port O’Brien’s background is suitably epic – comprised of Van Pierszalowski (try saying that with a mouthful of toast), Cambria Goodwin and a whole heap of supporting musicians – much of their songs were written in desolate Kodiak Bay in Alaska while Pierszalowski worked on his father’s salmon cannery and Goodwin as a baker. Like great indie rock records before it (Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’, Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma’, The Antler’s ‘Hospice’) the catalyst for ‘Threadbare’ was grief – in this case, the death of Cambria’s teenage brother – and the dull shock of this loss resonates throughout ‘Threadbare’, meaning even the more-upbeat songs, such as the stomping ‘Leap Year’, are tainted with a sense of world-weariness – as though the band are smiling through the tears.
The album opens on the icy ‘High Without The Hope 3’, Cambria’s fragile vocals – recalling ghostly Austrian pianist Soap&Skin- slipping along on the swelling melody and gently undulating guitar chords – and it’s pretty clear that, in ‘Threadbare’, Port O’Brien have discarded the joyful, shouty sing-along’s that made their name, in place of something not quite as vigorous, but ten times more affecting – a maturation of sorts.
Highlight is the gently-clambering ‘My Will Is Good’; its riff of surging, ghostly humming is simply mesmeric, and the lyrics are unsettlingly accusatory – ‘Did you find someone else to blame?’ asks Van. ‘Blame it all upon next year’s lottery’.
However, it’s the production that really raises ‘Threadbare’ above other, recent indie-folk releases– the violin soaring at end of ‘Tree bones’, the gentle banjo and sleepy guitar chords that usher in ‘In The Meantime’, the mutated orchestral sample at the start of ‘(((Darkness Visible)))’ – the rare attention to detail is what will warrant ‘Threadbare’ repeat listens; these are the kind of tapestried minutiae music fans will revel in unravelling and picking over.
The closer ‘High Without The Hope 72’ reprises the bleak opener, suggesting Port O’Brien have gone full circle without really getting anywhere – still miserable, still as lost and isolated as before – and yet it feels like a call-to-arms, a celebration of Port O’Brien’s luxurious downheartedness. But Port O’Brien are no generic, sulky indie band, and don’t exactly wallow in their misery – the warm, full strums of ‘Love Me Through’ announce ‘What a summer it’s been, but now it’s time for healing’ with something close to conviction, recalling a quote from (also nautically-themed) ‘The Shipping News’ by Annie Proulx – ‘And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery’.
In conclusion, ‘Threadbare’ is a rare thing – a lonely work of sparse, rugged beauty. And just like a grey, windswept coastline can be depressing as hell; it can also take your breath away.