Port O’Brien has stirred up quite a lot of press coverage in a few short years, thanks in part to being name-checked by M. Ward as his favorite new band and exposure on tours opening for Bright Eyes, the Cave Singers, and Modest Mouse, among others. The group, based in California when not working in a cannery off the coast of Alaska, also garnered a place on several “Best of 2007” album lists. If you happened to see any of those tours, you know that all the accolades are not empty hipster hype. If you had the misfortune to miss them, a new release offers another chance to get on board.
All We Could Do Was Sing opens with “I Woke Up Today”, which also appeared on the 2006 EP, Nowhere to Run, and on 2007’s collection The Wind and the Swell. The previous two recordings were very similar, just founding members Van Pierszalowski (guitars, vocals) and Cambria Goodwin (vocals, keys and mandolin) playing acoustically. The re-recorded song here is the first single from what is actually the band’s first full-length studio album, and features newer members Caleb Nichols (bass and vocals) and Joshua Banhart (drums, vocals, and autoharp). There’s a lot more instrumentation to this version of “I Woke Up Today”—including a cacophony of seemingly “found” percussion and a string arrangement (Robe Banhart)—but most importantly it comes delightfully close to replicating the excitement of the live Port O’Brien experience.
“Stuck on a Boat” reflects the other Port O’Brien experience, the one endured through long, lonely days on an endless ocean. In fact, Port O’Brien’s music shares many characteristics with the sea that dominates much of its material. It’s beautiful. It is ever-changing. It can move from a peaceful calm to an impassioned squall in a matter of moments. It’s exciting, enveloping, awe-inspiring, and often overwhelming.
“My feet weren’t made for the sea / They were made for running free / It don’t make much sense to me / To be stuck on a boat at sea”, laments Pierszalowski as the music pitches and lurches around him like a ship on the swell. “Fisherman’s Son” continues this theme of seafaring isolation with Pierszalowski’s tale of his place in the world, but it’s a softer perspective, complete with strings and a bittersweet sense of longing for the waves when he’s away from the water.
“Pigeonhold” is a rambling, ramshackle indictment of trend-conscious, preening, posing neo-hippies. It’s one part Neil Young, one part Nirvana, and comes off completely unaffected. “The Rooftop Song” brings back a bit of the Neil Young vibe, but with a much more sophisticated song structure than “Pigeonhold”. As it ebbs away, we hear shipboard reports of an approaching storm.
“In Vino Veritas”, sung by Goodwin, is a quaint little ditty, a sing-along drinking song about how nights in the cannery can be just as much like living exile as days being tied to the tide. “Close the Lid” returns to the big, full-band sound of “I Woke Up Today”. It’s another raucous hint of Port O’Brien’s powerful live presence, but it’s not lyrically cheerful like the opener. One imagines it was written at the end of the season, when cabin fever had taken its toll.
All We Could Do Was Sing‘s coda is “Valdez”, a quietly simple, yet earnest entreaty to Exxon suggesting that the corporation still owes something for its sins against the sea. The song’s theme may seem a bit out of place, perhaps, certainly a little out of time. However, it’s a wholly appropriate ending to an album by a band that makes its own experiences with distance and isolation into something that is, whether sad or celebratory, at once as changeable and as constant as the sea.