Loss weighs heavy on Port O’Brien’s new LP. While it’s not the dreaded “sophomore slump,” the band is certainly in an emotional one.
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. Her quavering vulnerability is a perfect fit for the meditations on loss, mortality, and love that dominate the album.
Threadbare is bookended by two versions of “High Without the Hope”. While I would have preferred more variation between the two versions, it’s hard to argue for a better opener/closer than the ephemeral, campfire hymn. The opening trio of “High Without the Hope 3”, “My Will Is Good”, and “Oslo Campfire” provide a strong start for the album. They also constitute both the strongest and most diverse run of songs on the Threadbare, but, that’s not saying much as the album is rather lacking in diversity.
The aforementioned highpoint “My Will Is Good” shows Port O’Brien spreading its wings, albeit meekly. They push the guitar into the background, and let the double-step shuffle of percussion and sighing strings take center stage. The hummed intro is also a nice touch. The aptly named “Oslo Campfire” is, indeed, well-suited for a campfire -- specifically, one on the beach. The languid, reverb-dipped guitar can’t help but evoke the gentle lapping of waves at night.
One of the things I most appreciate as a consummate music fan is cover art that succinctly encapsulates the album’s feel/aesthetic/etc. The graceful melancholy of threadbare is distilled into a serene shot of a windswept, seaside hill. It’s an image that resonates more effectively than words ever could, and it’s an image that sticks in my head whenever I listen to the album. Since the band is stationed on the California coast, I can only assume that the cover shot also doubles as a slice of home.
It’s a huge credit to the band that they manage to tackle the previously mentioned, weighty themes of loss and mortality without ever once approaching heavy-handedness. However, the way they deliver almost every song in a hushed, restrained tone befitting a church service makes me feel that they were playing things a bit too safe. At this point, it’s probably fairly obvious that there is no “I Woke Up Today” on this album. Hell, there’s barely a rockin’ tune to be found. The spunky “Leap Year” is the one truly upbeat song on Threadbare, and if you’ve ever wondered what The Cars would sound like as a Pacific Northwest indie-rock band, here you go. That’s a good thing, by the way.
Threadbare is a bit of a slog to get all the way through in one sitting. The simple addition of two or three more upbeat songs would have gone a long way to breaking up the album’s monotony. Despite these relative shortcomings, Threadbare is a more cohesive album than All We Could Do Was Sing; it just wants for stronger songs. I doubt this is the album that the band would have made if that tragic death had never occurred. The band’s press release for the album even states that it began as a “light-hearted and loose effort” but quickly turned into a “dense, introspective work” following their loss. Perhaps, it is fairest to take Threadbare as the document of a family going through the grieving and healing process. With that said, I look forward to hearing Port O’Brien celebrate life again.