The idea of “cinematic” music seems to have lost its cutting edge. Ever since Radiohead released OK Computer, the style has been refined to the point where nothing is really considered new anymore. Thankfully there are a few bands out there trying to push the envelope, making lush sounds for the mental motion picture occasionally running through one’s head. Peace Harbor is among them. The Portland, Oregon band has toured with several acts, including Calexico, SMOG, Songs: Ohia and the American Analog Set. This album, consisting of ten songs, contains a large amount of rich pop that tends more towards an acoustic angle than the traditional orchestral or string-induced scores. The fact that it was recorded in one day is a testament to how sometimes the first take is the best.
Beginning with “Train Song”, Zak Riles does a very good job setting the song up for a slow yet constant amble. Layering piano and guitar over the light drumming of Emil Snizek, the band could be mistaken for an experimental roots band. But the tenderness given to each instrument and the mix is very pleasing and soothing. It slowly builds into a quasi-dream pop sound, but reverts back to its acoustic foundation before fading nicely. “Today I Am Alone” is initially haunting as an acoustic guitar is laid atop a brooding and gloomy slide guitar effect. The tone of the tune is melancholic, although the effort breaks just slightly past the minute mark, losing its flow if only for a split second. From there it builds into a rich Celtic backdrop minus the bodhran. The drums make their mark later for a quirky, Pink Floyd sound, circa Wish You Were Here.
One noticeable item about the album is its lack of vocals early on. “Leaving California” is a strong acoustic guitar driven tune that brings to mind Jimmy Page performing one of Zeppelin’s acoustic instrumentals. It’s perhaps the first thoroughly inviting and uplifting track. The tune also has a definite restless feeling to it until a speech is added to the mix. “Sister’s Wedding” takes a bit longer to find its footing, but once it does, it’s a cross between a dirge and slow country ballad. Peace Harbor seems to enjoy teasing the listener as well, the guitars building before returning to calmer waters, and they are masters of increasing and decreasing the tension. The title track has more of a roots pop thread within it, although the banjo may suggest otherwise. It’s the first instance when vocals are heard, courtesy of Rob Kieswetter. Although just above a whisper, they are perfect for this niche. If there’s one fault though, it might be the length of the song, spinning a different path only during its homestretch.
“Loop Song” is, well, a bit loopy to be frank. The opening sound is reminiscent of early Beatles effects, but its consistency is troublesome. It’s disappointing, given that Riles has hit gold regarding the melody. The tension in this song grows yet never bubbles over, instead going into a tranquil zone. “I Saw God” mixes the acoustic with dream pop overtones. Amy Annelle joins Zak Riles for harmonies here, bringing to mind Belle and Sebastian if they grew up in rural America. Fans of Elliott Smith could find some solace in this song also, as it has a minimal, yet infectious, singer-songwriter arrangement.
The highlight of the record is the excellent feeling of “In My Room”, which could resemble a lengthy Bruce Cockburn acoustic introduction. Fun and carefree, the intricate playing meshes with the simple chord structure at the heart of the track. “Torch Song” is a grandiose and strong piece of music, moving from a toe-tapping acoustic style in the vein of Adrian Legg to a moodier, progressive rock feel. Peace Harbor has given the term “cinematic” a much-needed shot of verve.