“I’ve always been chagrined that no one understood that our songs were love songs,” OXBOW vocalist and lyricist Eugene Robinson says while reflecting on the band’s output from the last 35 years. Love may not have been the most obvious muse in their earlier work, but the subject has never been more apparent than on their eighth studio album and first new music in six years, Love’s Holiday, due out July 21, 2023 on Ipecac Recordings. “But now listening to a record of exclusively love songs I can see how no one saw that,” Robinson admits. “My problem is how I think about love as this affects how I feel about it, instead of the other way around.”
The misconception on the part of the audience is understandable; you won’t find a song in the OXBOW canon that resembles anything like the saccharine ballads saturating pop culture. Part of the band’s allure is the paradox—the visceral embrace of distortion, volume, and foreboding emotional timbres paired with meticulous execution, tension-baiting restraint, and an academic approach to songwriting; On stage, Robinson’s bloodletting unravels against the sound of brutish blues and angular arrangements too nuanced and disciplined for noise rock but too rooted in the carnal impulses of early rock n’ roll for the avant-garde crowd.
OXBOW was born when Robinson enlisted the help of Niko Wenner, guitarist and bandmate from the shape-shifting Bay Area punk band Whipping Boy, for a recording project. Robinson had a diaristic examination of the fallout from “a relationship that involved infidelity, attempted murder, robbery, extortion and sex addiction” that needed instrumentation. Harnessing the force of their hardcore and metal past while employing the arch forms of classical music, the improvisational forays of jazz, and the adventurism of experimental music, classically-trained Wenner created a sonic bedrock for Robinson’s anguished howls and seething croons. Further bolstered by the agile and off-kilter rhythm section of Greg Davis (drums) and Dan Adams (bass), OXBOW spent the next three decades fusing traditional music forms with the less refined and often transgressive approaches of late 20th century subterranean movements. The balance of these opposing forces has been continually recalibrated over the years, but the band has never leaned so heavily into the harmonious side of their sound as they have on Love’s Holiday.
Previous OXBOW albums found their impetus in a lyrical framework provided by Robinson, with Wenner applying his musical compositions to the singer’s narratives. But Love’s Holiday began with the music. “The music was chiefly inspired by and written for my family. We’ve had two children born and my father died while writing and working on this record,” Wenner says. “The songs are just a collection of music that I sang to my babies and then wrote guitar parts for and brought to the band as OXBOW songs.” Love, the guitarist confirms, was the organizing principle behind these songs, even if they still carry the band’s signature brand of drama and conflict.
One of the more apparent manifestations of this new approach is the orchestration on Love’s Holiday. OXBOW has often employed auxiliary instrumentation as an addendum to the guitars on their recordings, but this time around, human voices are the primary addition. Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota) lends her soaring operatic vocals to “Lovely Murk.” The layered choral bed of “1000 Hours” was provided by Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (Jellyfish, Beck). A fifteen-person choir lends a disarming grace to songs like “Gunwale” and “All Gone.” Strings, oboe, flute, and clarinet also find a place within Love’s Holiday, nudging the band away from the saturation of distorted guitar and towards what the album’s arranger and orchestrator Wenner describes as “piano-like clarity.” For a band with a reputation for making challenging music, moving away from guitar histrionics and knotty arrangements may be their boldest move yet. “It’s more difficult in some ways,” Adams muses. “It’s daunting and thrilling to work more directly within a musical palette used for so many decades in some spectacular, much inconsequential, and quite a bit of terrible music and production. We can try to channel the true great creations and have the great freedom to flounder and sink in a much, much deeper sea.”
Some credit for this increased sonic clarity undoubtedly belongs to Grammy-winning engineer and co-producer Joe Chiccarelli (White Stripes, My Morning Jacket). Love’s Holiday is the third OXBOW album recorded with Chiccarelli, and the band members uniformly state that their trust in him allowed the album to venture into even more inviting directions. “He pushed simplicity as an idea for us,” Davis explains. “It’s not like we don’t have this simpler, clearer side to us musically, but when we’d go off in some odd direction he’d step in and say ‘consider that you have already done this sort of thing before, so the different thing is not to do it.’” Wenner concurs with this statement. “Given all the hours of OXBOW music with excess in all its forms and its sometimes nearly impenetrable sonic density, moving toward clarity and contours of pop-adjacent music was conversely the most transgressive thing we could do at this point in our career,” the guitarist says.
For all the differences in the process, Love’s Holiday is still very much an OXBOW album. Across its ten tracks, Love’s Holiday can feel feverish, disorienting, hostile, beguiling, defeated, and triumphant. Eschewing the memoir approach in favor of a nautical narrative, Robinson excavates the past through metaphor. “There are singular themes and overarching themes,” he explains. “If you think about the ocean in a Freudian sense you get the latter. if you focus on the former you’re seeing me gathering the tailings of my life since our last album…hence: my deep meditation on love as a process, a destabilizing affliction, and a cure.” Whether the listener walks away from the album with the sense of comfort and peace that comes with love is uncertain. “In my heart, I see myself as Barry White or Teddy Pendergrass,” Robinson quips one moment, only to confess that Love’s Holiday is “an evolution in OXBOW’s journey to make the most perfect paean to love ever… a record that loves you but then explains that there’s no benefit to being loved by us,” moments later.
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