If 2007’s nautically themed All We Could Do Was Sing was Port O’Brien’s maiden voyage, then the band’s latest effort is their weary return to berth. Shorn of the boisterous barn-stomps and all-too-literal sea shanties that characterized their first studio album, Threadbare takes slow, sad, orchestral turns through the world of rainy West Coast folk.
The formula is hardly original, of course: the Decemberists, Bowerbirds and Bodies of Water have all found fame in sparse acoustic ballads, backed by padding bongos and waves of windswept strings. But Port O’Brien’s take is gratifyingly genuine compared to those of their nu-folk peers. After all, the band’s founding duo, Cambria Goodwin and Van Piersalowski, actually live the star-crossed seaside life for four months of the year: he spends his summers on a commercial fishing boat, while she bakes for the workers of a Kodiak Island cannery.
It’s a lifestyle that lends Threadbare a certain unaffected rawness — a sense of isolation that only the outer reaches of the far north could evoke. Tracks like the bookends “High Without the Hope 3” and “High Without the Hope” find Goodwin cooing through the Taken By Trees’ songbook, humming heartache over violin and tribal drums. In the interim, “Next Season” and “(((Darkness Visible)))” quiver on the brink of despair. And even when the tracks pick up — Piersalowski rallies on “Sour Milk Salt Water,” and “Tree Bones” discovers a jaunty fiddle line mid-track — something quietly tragic and transcendent remains. This is maritime music of the most compelling sort: a sad, pale, wistful soundtrack for widows’ walks the world over.
Review by Emusic