[17 October 2011]
All Van Pierszalowski needed was a change of scenery. When his folk quartet Port O’Brien broke up in early 2010, their fans saw it as not only the end of a beautiful band but as the possible end of Pierszalowski’s music career. After all, with songwriters such as M. Ward claiming you as one of his favorite new bands just a year prior, it seemed all too underwhelming that he’d give up on the project soon thereafter. Yet whatever the reason for the frontman’s plug-pulling, it proved a worthwhile move on his part. With his new project WATERS, Pierszalowski ups the ante for exactly how much artistic integrity he’s capable of, replacing the banjo wailings of Port O’Brien with speaker-blowing grunge-rock that could be the next Foo Fighters album. It’s a change no one ever saw coming… which is what makes it so damn exciting.
The story of WATERS goes something like this:
After the disbandment of Port O’Brien, Pierszalowski moved to Oslo, Norway where he took a step back from music in order to reevaluate his life and choices for the future. Having spent a lot of time in California, he basked in the experience of seeing the seasons change as well as being able to swim daily in the nearby fjords. For those up on your current events, the destination of Oslo may seem like a strange choice for respite after the tragic youth camp massacre this year, but Pierszalowski had left the town months before July. Inspired by the lifestyle, the songwriter ventured to relocate again, first to Alaska, where he’d worked with his father on a fishing boat, then to California where he’d grown up (and formed Port O’Brien), and eventually to Brooklyn. It was along this cross-country journey that he made a brave choice: he took his musical endeavors in a totally different direction. The upbeat acoustica fans grew accustomed to with Port O’Brien was completely ditched as WATERS came to life in the form of pedal distortion. Knowing he’d found a bigger and different sound than anything he’d ever played, Pierszalowski headed back to the origin of the divine inspiration: Oslo. There he gathered up some Norwegian musicians to accompany him on the new project, and two months of rehearsal sessions later, WATERS was born.
Within a minute of spinning the record needle, Pierszalowski shouts in your ear why WATERS ever came to be. “I’ve seen too much of old/ And I’m not waiting,” the singer bellows through voice distortion on “For the One,” before busting out a three-chord structure in Foo Fighters-like tone. Centering on the prophecy that there’s no such thing as a corner you can’t get yourself out of, he uses the album to explain the lesson he learned out of that time spent in Oslo: if you want to start over, life will always hand you that option. “Never imagined I could be a free man this soon / Wade through water, there’s a light at the edge of my room,” he sings on “O Holy Break of Day” over a blues riff with which Warren Haynes would have a field day.
Yet it’s through the music that the album’s theme is hammered home. After the significant quiet of Port O’Brien on 2009’s Threadbare, WATERS’ Out in the Light bares as much semblance to the folk quartet’s sound as Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales does to Synchronicity. Sure, there are similarities (check out the blues riff on Threadbare’s “Tree Bones” and fuzz rock on “Leap Year”), but Out in the Light takes those peculiar amplified moments and brings them to the forefront. “Back to You” resembles post-2005 Pearl Jam, lacking guitar flashiness but still rocking hard enough to make you wear earplugs, while “If I Run” pulls a change-up a minute that even Wilco would be proud of. This time around, electronics don’t take a backseat.
It’s only fitting that Pierszalowski gave his new project the name he did, because ignoring the allusion to the singer’s pre-record travels, this album just parted his own Red Sea. For a guy who seemingly gave up on a good thing, WATERS is one hell of a project to come back on. It proves not only the merits of which he’s capable, but even begs the question of whether experimentation is something we can look forward to from him from here on out. Out in the Light has got him riding a smooth current. Now we’ll see if his next record can make some waves.