When NorCal folksters Port O’Brien first pulled into Muddy Waters last year to perform songs off their 2008 release, All We Could Do Was Sing, we didn’t know quite what to expect. To a tightly packed crowd, the then six-piece ensemble charged through jangly tune after jangly tune, singing and howling about life aboard Alaskan fishing boats (singer/songwriter Van Pierszalowski used to spend summers working there) and being away from home. Their swelling arrangements and shared vocals drew immediate comparisons to Arcade Fire and the Decemberists-even though Pierszalowski never really heard the similarities-and their energy was some of the most infectious and exuberant out there.
This Wednesday, Port O’Brien make their highly anticipated return to Muddy in support of their third release, Threadbare. The album itself is a far cry from the seafaring adventures chronicled on All We Could Do, instead focusing on tales of grief and recovery that hit especially close to home. Just before work on Threadbare began, singer/songwriter Cambria Goodwin lost her teenage brother to a fatal car accident, and the songs that came as a result of the tragedy now make up the majority of the record. Mournful compositions like “(((Darkness Visible)))” and the disc’s title track are among their most startling and emotionally resonant recordings. Pierszalowski swoops in between to lighten things up with acoustic-driven songs of hope and healing like “Love Me Through” and “My Will Is Good.”
“Cambria wrote a lot of the lyrics,” explained Pierszalowski from a recent tour stop in Maryland. “Definitely, lyrically speaking, she was in a much more focused place than I was and was writing beautiful lyrics. All I could do was kind of sit there and listen. But most of the songs were immediately collaborative. The ones she sings I write music for, and the ones I sing, same goes for that.”
Most obviously, the shared songwriting tactic keeps Threadbare from being a cover-to-cover sob story, but it also makes for a dialogue about life and love and healing between Goodwin and Pierszalowski, who it stands to mention have long been romantically involved.
“Just the recording of Threadbare was cathartic,” recalled Pierszalowski. “I, for one, have never thought of performing live as a cathartic experience. It’s a different type of release, and I’ve just never associated it with that. But recording and writing this record definitely was a therapeutic, healing experience.”
At this point, it’s tough to know how Threadbare‘s material will affect the band’s signature exuberance in front of an audience. But Pierszalowski is the first to admit that the live shows definitely have changed with this record.
“It’s tough, especially for Cambria,” he said. “Having lost her brother, a lot of the songs are about that, and they’re really difficult. And the rest of this record is just really tough to re-create live. There are a lot of really intimate recording styles-like tapping on an acoustic guitar for your percussion on ‘High Without the Hope’ and ‘Love Me Through’-and that’s impossible to re-create live because of feedback and other issues. So it’s tough, both musically and emotionally, to perform a lot of these songs. But as we tour more and more, we’re getting a handle on it.”
Through it all, Pierszalowski has retained a voice that’s outwardly confident and positive. He is reserved on the phone, but one can hear excitement in his tone as well when he talks about venturing back to the Left Coast and playing in his home state. He’s also carefully candid about the lineup changes the band have undergone since touring for All We Could Do wrapped.
“It’s good now,” he said. “We had kind of reached a breaking point with our old band and couldn’t really do it anymore. So we’ve got Tyson [Vogel] from Two Gallants playing drums and Gram [LeBron] from Rogue Wave playing guitar and it’s been great. We’re getting tight again.”
Port O’Brien play an all-ages show at Muddy Waters Cafe (508 E. Haley St.) this Wednesday, November 4, at 9 p.m. Call 966-9328 or visit clubmercy.com for ticket info.