Port O'Brien

Port O’Brien, claimed by both the Bay Area and the Central Coast as their own, has been continuously growing in popularity as their music moves beyond the college radio curcuit and across the country. The band’s indie-infused folk tunes are painfully catchy, tugging at heart strings and boot straps alike.

Port O’Brien’s new album All We Could Do Was Sing (released Tuesday, May 13, 2008) is a fantastic collection of songs written while the band was living on a fishing boat in Alaska for the summer. The album is exhilarating and refreshing, yet cold and lonely at times, reflecting the idyllic setting in which it was written.

The opening track “I Woke Up Today” feels like a modern day “We Will Rock You,” only with a much less forceful message — the kind of tune that you and might sing (or yell) along to while cruising the sidewalks or jumping for joy. These anthemic group vocals have popped up many times in recent indie music, and while it’s not hard to see it getting old, Port O’Brien certainly does it best.
It takes a moment to get past some of the clearly out-of-tune (I suppose “dissonant” is a kinder word) vocals in songs like “In Vino Veritas,” but it’s evident that they’re trying to make that a style of sorts — slightly flawed recordings that feel real and not plastic. Listen to it a few times and the tinge of discomfort fades.

A highlight of the album is “Close the Lid,” a tune that builds from a simple, stripped-down melody to a danceable, guitar solo-injected rock tune. Some of the lyrics are heart-wrenchingly cute: “I’m not afraid to die / as long as you’re by my side / we can sleep the whole year through.” But this song is the perfect example of the somewhat ambiguous themes that pervade the album — switching between this familiar bliss and the isolation and conflict of being alone: “…we are on the brink / of a long civil war / between my heart and yours / we will fight by ourselves.”

This ambivalence is repeated many times throughout the album, with a recurring theme of true love conflicted with isolation, cold, and what goes through your mind when your mind is all you’ve got. The effecting melodies and lyrics are supplemented with simple string parts and lots of percussion. On the lighter side of the album is the stunning “Will You Be There,” the kind of achingly sweet song that sticks with you for days.

For the live shows, guitarist/vocalist Van Pierszalowski leads the band with an Elvis-like snarl and an excess of charisma. The band’s chemistry and love of the music comes out in full force.

This post was originally written for and republished from KQED Interactive.