Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Port O'Brien, Threadbare

The cover for Threadbare, the third album by Oakland-based Port O'Brien, is a shot of a flowery hillside disappearing into the fog. It perfectly captures the beauty, sadness, and almost overwhelming sense of loss that permeates the album.

Threadbare was recorded after the recent death of singer/songwriter Cambria Goodwin's younger brother, and the album is filled with her mourning. It begins and ends with "Without Hope," whose line "mourning's never linear" became a mantra for Goodwin as she tried to deal with her grief.

Songs like the delicate "(((Darkness Visible)))" and the tragically gorgeous "Next Season" are almost difficult to listen to because they are so full of despair. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will recognize the feelings that these songs, and the album as a whole, produce. It's like being punched in the gut, like being unable to breathe, a pain so acute and all-consuming that it's impossible to think of anything else.

At the same time, there is also a certain joy in the album; Goodwin had to have loved her brother very much to feel his loss to deeply. Like a good wake, Threadbare has its moments of celebration.

More than anything, though, Threadbare is about picking up the pieces and trying to start over. The majority of songs are slow and somber. Even uptempo songs like "Leap Year" and "Sour Milk/Salt Water" are weighed down with heavy sadness.

"This too shall pass," they sing on "Oslo Campire," and "Tree Bones" has the line "Mama, we'll no longer be/On this land by the sea/Push away, I beg and plead/We'll no longer come with thee." The baroque folk and off-kilter sea shanties of last year's excellent All We Could Do Was Sing are muted or absent. Goodwin takes a larger songwriting and singing role than on previous efforts, and singer Van Pierszalowski's voice is approaching a Neil Young croak.

Threadbare is a beautiful album, and one of the best musical documentations of loss that I've ever heard. It's further proof that Port O'Brien are an important band, and is one of my favorite albums of the year. My only wish for the band is that their next album allows them to concentrate on more uplifting and positive emotions; they've clearly had their share of heartbreak.

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