Earth Three Rounds and a Sound
Here’s a new duo with a promising future, whom have sort of crept up on the local scene, by going about things a little differently than most musical acts do. For one, the band has organized and executed two (count them) West Coast bicycle tours (totally green, mind you- no motorized vehicles whatsoever were utilized in the process)- performing their music in out of the way locales from Bellingham to Mexico, promoting their EP (which has now grown into this full-length, eleven song album) and creating a buzz about the band that now stretches across the nation. Their first tour was abbreviated, because their equipment was stolen in San Francisco.
First KCRW, the influential So. Cal radio station started playing some of their stuff last summer- at about the time that their song “Go On, Say It” was picked as iTunes’ Single of the Week. That put them within listening distance of Aimee Mann, who christened them her “new favorite band.” Deservedly so. Then, more recently, the new album was selected as Starbucks’ “Pick of the Week.” Quite an achievement for coming out of nowhere.
Now the band is prepared to embark on their first national tour which will find them playing at South by Southwest in March and New York City’s famed Mercury Lounge in April. Not bad for a couple of “unknowns.”
Portland natives Israel Nebeker (vocals, guitar) and Ryan Dobrowski (drums), have been friends since college, and have obviously bonded musically: creating forlornly beautiful music with such bare-bones simplicity- that the sky would seem to be the limit for their musical futures. Nebeker’s songs evoke material performed by the Shins or Death Cab For Cutie. They are in that same contemplatively dejected category. But one can also hear Conor Oberst or Elliot Smith in Nebeker’s voice (though not as precious as the former, nor as depressed as the latter). Nebeker claims he was influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel and Joanna Newsom, which could very well be.
The foundation for the band’s sound lies in Dobrowski’s drums. He is to Blind Pilot what Scott Plouf was to the Spinanes- another Portland duo who met with success in the early ‘90s. Dobrowski plays with a solid, rock temperament, but he does not overshadow Nebeker’s plaintive guitar. Nebeker’s guitar sound is taken directly from Bob Dylan’s late ‘60s album “John Wesley Harding,” with a warm ambience that usually comes from gut strings- ala Spanish guitars, but could be something like a Martin Double-Ought; a smaller acoustic guitar with steel strings.
It is a convivial sound that melds distinctively with the drums- creating a wonderful bed for Nebeker‘s soft, smooth vocals. Some songs feature a bit more instrumentation- augmented by touches of a string section, banjo, vibes, keyboard or trumpet. But most of the power comes from the duo and Nebeker’s songs themselves.
The eleven songs presented here are immaculate in their conception and lovingly precise and pristine in their execution. The set begins with “Oviedo,” perhaps an ode to the city in Northern Spain. Nebeker’s lyrics are vague enough to obscure their full intent, but not their emotional depth: “Four times is once too much for luck/and that’s how many times the clock struck/ I wandered home saying your name.” Over soft, almost ukelele-like guitar work and crisp drumming, the song leisurely unfolds. Strings join in at about the midway point of the song, and then a plucky banjo joins to add atmosphere to an already atmospheric song. “You’ll be having my head as big as a birthday/Coz I left all my doubts on the airplane.”
Production-wise “The Story I Hear” sort of takes off where the last song, left off- although the lyrics are not so oblique, but only barely so. Likewise, “Paint or Pollen” more or less combines themes of the previous two songs, while staying within the same essential musical structure. Here, bell-like vibes flutter above the arrangement, while sonorous strings cry mournfully in the turns. The waltz “Poor Boy” utilizes major 7th chords the way Paul Simon used to in the heyday of Simon and Garfunkel (“Old Friends,” “America”).
One of the highlights of the set, “One Red Thread,” kicks off with forlorn guitar over bracing drums, before melting into the slow-moving middle section at the sound of the vibes; swinging back into the chugging train of the main verse. The aforementioned “Go On, Say It” dances on sorrowful strings and piquant vibes- a sad song about the lack of communication, when it is most needed in a relationship. A lovely song.
“I Buried A Bone,” a short sweet song, bears an instantly memorable melody, punctuated by Mexicali trumpets. The string section returns, with muted trumpets to augment “Things I Cannot Recall,” calling to mind some of Sufjan Stevens’ more orchestral work. Nebeker handles the introduction to “The Bitter End,” before Dobrowski joins in, set off by chiming vibes, bass guitar and a backing vocal choir on the chorus. Another very pretty song.
The title track is a laid-back number, accented by accordion and strings, surrounding a harsh, confessional lyric- “Now I see you to kingdom come/ you’re the one I want to see me/ For all the stupid shit I’ve done.” A fitting ending to a very satisfying first album.
The sky is the limit for Blind Pilot. With this album, they have done the groundwork necessary to further their careers. It is obvious that the plan is to widen the production scale, by adding sparse instrumentation. That is ostensibly being reflected by their local performances- with nine performers taking the stage to fill out these songs. But, even as a two-piece, this is a band with which to be reckoned. Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski have found their niche. And not a lot is required of them to succeed. They only need to keep coming up with wonderful songs, such as those found here; and to maintain their status as one of the best new bands in Portland- or anywhere else, for that matter.