Sometimes it seems that Portland, Oregon is poised to be the next “happening” city in the good ole’ UsofA. Home to Foghorn Stringband, The Water Tower Bucket Boys, Blitzen Trapper, Alela Diane and Richmond Fontaine among others when one looks into it Portland has been the next happening place for many years. Quiet and unassuming it seems to just get on with it without ever aspiring to the notoriety of the likes of Nashville or Austin. I’ve never been there so this might just be a random notion but one gets the impression that a place that has been like a second home to the likes of the Holy Modal Rounders and Ken Kesey must have something going for it.
Anyway, the above is a bit of a meandering introduction to The James Low Western Front who are indeed Portland based and also, in their own way, quiet and unassuming. Led by the titular James Low they are basically an alt country outfit much in the way that Richmond Fontaine are and this is reinforced by the presence of Paul Brainard on pedal steel. Having said that Low is quite different from Willy Vlautin. While Vlautin excels in his portraits of an American underclass, drifting, out of work, at times desperate, Low attempts to paint a picture of a class that despite their own difficulties still have aspirations. However the overall picture here is of a siege mentality, a constant struggle to achieve. Whereas Vlautin’s characters’ are constantly on the move here the protagonists appear paralysed, waiting and hoping for things to get better. On Thinking California Low sings “ I know she wants to leave here, There’s nothing I can do but promise we’ll get better before the year is through.”
All of this is delivered in a sweet country veined manner, for the most part laid back as in the fine Words and Thinking California. A dry and dusty low key bunch of songs with pedal steel, Dobro and keyboards supporting the basic guitars and Low’s attractive vocals it’s a fine set.
Diving into this lake is an exhilarating experience. There are deep waters and strange currents that pull the listener under the surface, almost drowning but certainly enveloped in an almost dream like aquamarine state of mind (if such a thing exists). This is baroque pop with horns, woodwind and strings decorating a very strong set of songs that are melodic in the extreme as Garcia’s handsome vocals dominate proceedings.
Garcia is a 27 year old musician and filmmaker who moved from Austin to Portland a few years ago. Immersing himself in the artistic scene there he has been making this album with a cast of dozens over the past year and a half. Although there are whiffs of the Buckley’s in Garcia’s vocals and the organic feel of much of the instrumentation is similar to much of the “psych folk” movement there is little to compare this album with without going back to the heyday of Van Dykes Park’s work with the Beach Boys and Harry Nilsson. Ornate, stately, almost orchestral at times there are moments of beauty. The shimmering strings, harp and violins on “Leaving Me For a Bald Fat Man” are heart stopping. At the heart of the music however is a punchy rhythm section with some great bass playing (on Song for the Siren (not the Buckley song) for example). At time the propulsion is akin to that of New Order with a side order of Kraut Rock and the closing song “Tram” echoes Wire circa Pink Flag.
In addition to the gothic shade afforded by the instrumentation Garcia as a wordsmith avoids sentimentality The best example of this is the contradiction at the heart of the aforementioned “Leaving Me For a Bald Fat Man. “ It does tug at the heartstrings but the lyrics are barbed. Losing his love to, yes indeed, a fat man, the singer closes this wonderful “love” song with the words “don’t forget me, bitch.”
Fourth release from this songwriter from Portland, Oregon, this took some time to come to terms with. Initially it seemed to be a fairly lightweight confection very much in the general female singer/songwriter mode. Repeated listening (one in particular, late at night with some wine to accompany it )offered a greater insight into what is a warm, embracing and comforting album.
The primary problem here was the jauntier songs including the opener, Sun Comes Back which is pleasant but innocuous and Desdemona which trots along at a brisk pace but failed to engage me. The meat of the album is in the slower songs which dominate the latter half of the album. Rose sounds more comfortable on these, her voice assumes a sultry tone missing in the more upbeat numbers. Stone Around my Neck is a particularly effective song with discontented rumblings creeping in on keyboards at one point reflecting the discontented state of the relationship she is singing about. The musicians (a select bunch of Austin players) excel on the following What Do You Bury which is sumptuous and beguiling on an obituary for a drunkard partner with a lyrical tour de force. The mood continues on Heart Broken Open with warm bass notes and a vulnerable vocal performance with great alliterative wordplay.
So overall a grower, an album to sink into, really rather nice.
Have a listen here