Alaska is a word that represents not only a physical place, but also the myths that have grown up around it. The state of Alaska, the political entity, is subsumed within the notion of its barbaric, natural beauty and its perceived proximity to both life and death. A man can find freedom in Alaska, so the story goes, freedom bought with gold or claimed through living consonant with nature. It is the sole remaining embodiment of “The American West,” drawing dreamers and robust individualists, those who want to get away and those who want to test themselves, to draw nearer to the marrow of life.
In an imagination colored by accounts of Alaska’s perilous grandeur, it can easily be forgotten that it is also, simply, a place where people work and live. Which brings me to Port O’Brien, an Oakland, Calif.-based band, three members of which have spent some time working on Kodiak Island. Van Pierszalowski, the bands principal singer and guitar player, draws substantial inspiration from summers spent on his father’s commercial salmon fishing boat. Songs like “Stuck on a Boat” and “Fisherman’s Son” directly reference the experience and feel like confidences of thought lines generated while at sea for weeks on end. The latter explores the dual desire for city and wilderness, hinging on fatalistic doubts about transcending the bonds of his genes. Creating the songs seems like a resolution to the problem, a third option that depends on the intersection of both locales and the searching consciousness that can develop from rigorous but confined activity in the midst of a massive, awe-inspiring landscape. After all, whoever heard of a fatalistic fisherman?
It has to be said that All We Could Do Was Sing contains one of the year’s more anthemic and irresistible songs, “I Woke Up Today.” They released an earlier version on one of the EPs collected on their 2007 album, The Wind and the Swell, but the new version far surpasses the folksy charm of its predecessor. The harmony vocals have become huge, huge enough to suggest The Arcade Fire, and it has been sped up, hinging on a swiftly picked guitar and ramshackle, hit-anything-that-will-make-a-sound percussion. (The La Blogotheque version, from Winnie’s in NYC, takes the percussion thing to a whole other level.) “I Woke Up Today” opens things with a bang, and while there is certainly no single track to match its unique, wide-eyed exuberance, there are more than enough memorable songs to keep things interesting from start to finish.
Maybe it is the physical and psychological strain of long hours of strenuous labor that make for such gritty songs, humble and solid, which patiently develop a fullness and vibrancy. “Don’t Take My Advice” is just such a song, given its initial character by the charisma of Cambria Goodwin’s simple banjo figure and Pierszalowski’s plaintive vocals, it swells into a gorgeous little tune floating above a subtle string arrangement. The music doubles the sense of the lyric, a simultaneous longing for and rejecting of home and stability.
For the most part, All We Could Do Was Sing is made up of this sort of meditation, often taking the form of an oscillation between two distinct poles. This dedicated aimless wandering is in close commune with one of the predominant strains of American songwriting, intelligent but not intellectual, thoughtful and searching. There are missteps along the way—album closer, “Valdez,” with its whimpered vocals and purposeful lack of production makes for an ending that contrives to produce the sense of warmth and intimacy that Port O’Brien achieves so successfully, so seemingly effortlessly, in any number of other places on the All We Could Do Was Sing. But my complaints are few here. Port O’Brien has the oft aimed for, and seldom acquired, knack for creating songs that feel out of time but perfectly at home in the present moment.