Love's Holiday

rating icon 7.5 / 10

Track listing:

01. Dead Ahead
02. Icy White & Crystalline
03. Lovely Murk
04. 1000 Hours
05. All Gone
06. The Night the Room Started Burning
07. " "
08. Million Dollar Weekend
09. The Second Talk
10. Gunwale

California's OXBOW is one of a kind, an adventurous noise rock / experimental rock act that's been challenging itself and its listeners for more than 30 years. While some may dismiss the ever-present, high-brow intellectualism as being pretentious, the quartet has reliably created art that's genuine, heartfelt and awe-inspiring. With "Love's Holiday", their eighth studio album and first batch of new music in six years, OXBOW continues to push itself. This time around, the San Francisco-based unit offers a product that's much more succinct and accessible than all that's come before. They've done so without compromising themselves nor losing the beauty of their music's intricate, subtle details.

Another contrast from previous releases is the considerable divergence in theme. With that said, the filthy, dank, candid tales and sentiments of the past aren't abandoned as OXBOW chooses the notion of love as heart of "Love's Holiday". It shouldn't be surprising that there are no cheesy ballads in the conventional sense. Mind you, "Million Dollar Weekend" does entail some semblance of a more traditional love song, but even here, the bluesy track is more grey, searching and deep than what can be expected from standard mainstream music. Granted, that's a broad-sweeping condemnation of pop music right there, however OXBOW has always boasted a profound depth and grasp of the sublime that's far beyond most bands, regardless of genre.

"Love's Holiday" tackles issues of both familial and romantic love, and they've drifted from their regular songwriting approach. OXBOW was initially a recording project spearheaded by two members of the left-field hardcore punk band WHIPPING BOY, vocalist Eugene Robinson and classically trained guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Niko Wenner. Over time, Wenner tended to craft songs around Robinson's incredibly dramatic narratives, but with "Love's Holiday", Wenner wrote music that pulled inspiration from immediate family matters, the birth of two children and the death of his father. Wenner sang some of the music to his babies prior to writing guitar parts that he presented to the band.

OXBOW has regularly supplemented its recorded output with guest musicians in terms of instrumentation, and "Love's Holiday" also reaches beyond the long-standing, core lineup. LINGUA IGNOTA's Kristin Hayter tastefully augments the playful, upbeat swing of "Lovely Murk" with her incredible opera-caliber singing, powerfully counterpointing Robinson's moody, conversational delivery with her over-the-top bellowing. Elsewhere, a choir, strings, oboe, flute, clarinet, synth and keyboards flesh out the album with a sense of purpose.

Speaking of the auxiliary keyboard work, one of the contributors was Joe Chiccarelli, who is extremely close and embedded within the album as well as OXBOW's recent recorded work. The GRAMMY-winning engineer and co-producer, whose resume includes WHITE STRIPES and MY MORNING JACKET, has now worked with OXBOW over the course of three albums, including "Love's Holiday". The quartet has very much embraced Chiccarelli's involvement and influence. He was one of the catalysts that led to Wenner and the band choosing to streamline its songs. That relative simplicity is what propels a song like "Icy White and Crystalline", a twangy, groovy song that's up-tempo and almost pop-rock in appeal, if it weren't for Robinson's unhinged, maniacal delivery.

In relation to the rest of OXBOW's compelling and insane catalogue, "Love's Holiday" is a departure, thematically more than instrumentally. It's rooted in melancholy rather than the rabid nihilism that defined the bulk of their previous music. There's a spirit of optimism and hope that bubbles up throughout, as well as the notion that love can be a process. And there's also, seemingly, an instability involved with the band's perception and expression of love. This ambiguity allows listeners to arrive at their own conclusion.

It's clear that Robinson and Wenner are the focal points and driving forces behind OXBOW, as they've always been. But the quartet's longtime, well-established rhythm section — bassist, keyboardist Dan Adams and percussionist Greg Davis — clearly pin everything down and prevent the music from wandering off too far with overly impulsive thrusts. In any event, time will inform the extent to which "Love's Holiday" will be regarded in relation to the fantastic work that's come before, in the meantime, it's obvious that it reaches the high watermarks that OXBOW has met time and time again.

Author: Jay H. Gorania
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