Port O'Brien


From: Oakland, CA (and Port O'Brien, AK)

Van Pierszalowski - guitars, vocals
Cambria Goodwin - banjo, vocals, keys, mandolin
Caleb Nichols - bass, vocals
Joshua Barnhart - drums, vocals, autoharp
Zebedee Zaitz - guitars, vocals, keys

Sounds like:

The spin on Port O'Brien goes that the Oakland band spend their summers working in the Alaskan fishing industry, and those long days of grueling work and isolation on Kodiak Island have fed the creative rat. While maybe not completely capturing the essence of the Alaskan archipelago in the same way that Calexico evokes the desert southwest, the similar influence of location is patently clear. The short newspaper blurb I saw which prompted me to look up Port O'Brien said this:

"If Calexico capture the widescreen, lonesome dustiness of scorched America, Port O'Brien are like their damp, more intimate equivalents."
It's a nice image.

But thematically, I find a better parallel in Death Cab for Cutie's album Transatlanticism: where Death Cab explored the isolation of fame and yearning for intimacy during long stretches on tour, Port O'Brien tackle the same loneliness, longing, and disconnection experienced in weeks and months at sea. The jangly, folk-tinged pop, stylistically akin to REM or Sun Kil Moon, is a perky contrast to the gray images of boats, rain, and exhaustion of being at sea which dominate the lyrics. The romantic notion of the Alaskan fisherman is contrasted with the danger, the exhaustion, and bleakness found in the day to day grind of being there.

In desperation is hope, though, and far from being moody music for a rainy day, I find even the slower songs like "Tree Bones" to be full of life and spirit. It's easy to imagine the simple acoustic sounds coming out of a fishery dorm late at night in celebration of getting through another day. As suggested by the title of their debut album, All We Could Do Is Sing, what else is there to do?

The cannery probably hasn't been a source of much more than cash for most, but Port O'Brien has found it a rich inspiration for creating great music that will appeal far beyond the remote Alaskan towns from which it grew.

Favorite song: Alive for Nothing

Video: Port O'Brien interview and concert footage