Oxbow’s always been a band that falls outside of usual genre categorizations, experimenting with a wide range of musical styles and exploring the more unsettling side of the human condition. Considering front man Eugene Robinson’s recent comments that the band’s songs have been about love all along, this makes some of the harsher and darker entries in their discography even more unnerving, but certainly doesn’t lessen the appeal. When it comes down to it, Oxbow has always had that rock ‘n roll spirit of rebellion alongside the storytelling aspect of blues, but with a bit more density and less immediacy. As the group enters their thirty fourth year of existence, their material has become a bit more streamlined and dare I say accessible, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to discover beneath the surface. The first taste of this slightly more relaxed Oxbow came on 2017’s Thin Black Duke, and this has been continued on Love’s Holiday. With all aspects of love now being the focus, the album spends a lot of time in a more introspective and exploratory mood, but still delivers some of that raw energy and power the group is known for.
For an album that spends a good amount of its run time exploring more somber, subtle textures and melodic elements, Love’s Holiday doesn’t immediately make the direction that it’s headed in clear. Opener “Dead Ahead” starts with bursts of almost industrial feedback before angular guitars come in. There’s a looser, frenetic feel to this track that recalls some of the noise rock and post punk elements of Oxbow’s earlier albums, but with some added clarity and a brighter sound. This is followed up by the power of “Icy White & Crystalline” which moves forward with a rock or even heavy metal swagger and has some real weight behind the guitar, bass, and drums. Part of me wonders if this heaviness and power trio type of swagger is a reaction to the notion of “dad rock” and bands getting safe and losing their intensity as they get older and start to settle down, but whatever the case may be this track leaves a strong impression. But the music continues to twist and turn, settling into a much more reflective and somber tone on “Lovely Murk” and “1000 Hours”. The intensity fades away in favor of much softer yet layered instrumentation, which adds in sweeping orchestral and choral elements alongside the core guitar, bass, and drums to create a truly captivating sound. Despite their more subdued nature, there’s a lot happening on these tracks and like a classical piece additional layers jump out at you over repeat listens. “The Second Talk” kicks things back to the noisier side with big booming, blues riffs and little bit more fury, serving as another late album highlight after the songs that precede it get you in a moodier headspace. The bulk of this material is a bit less immediate than Thin Black Duke, as while there are some specific melodies or jagged guitar leads that jump out on that first listen it takes a bit before these songs really get under your skin. It’s interesting to describe an Oxbow album as mellow considering where they started, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a sense of tension to the music as darkness seeps in amongst the brighter spots. Love’s Holiday does admittedly just sort of end a bit abruptly, as “Gunwale” fades out a burst of feedback and then that’s it. It does loop back into the intro of “Dead Ahead”, but I can’t help but wonder if the group cut things just a bit too short here and could’ve stretched out the closer further. But aside from this nitpick, the moves from big, booming riffs to more reflective and layered melodies drew me back again and again once things clicked.
There are plenty of great instrumental arrangements throughout Oxbow’s discography, but Eugene Robinson’s performance has always been the element that has put their music over the top. Sometimes sounding downright psychotic, Robinson has sung, screamed, and whispered in ways that gave a constant sense of tension. In recent years this has pivoted towards a mix of in your face and more contemplative and somber moments, and Love’s Holiday amplifies this approach. On the first two tracks you’re met with a more scorching and powerful performance where the singing moves into full-on screeching, but “Lovely Murk” is much calmer by comparison. This song features Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota) providing stunning back-up singing that soars over the recording and contributes to a more hazy, dreamlike feel. Other guests include Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (Jellyfish, Beck) and a full choir that was assembled for the album, which both contribute to the sense of tension and warmer atmosphere at different points throughout Love’s Holiday. Robinson is once again in fine form, spanning the entire spectrum of what love can be defined by as he runs through fierce, passionate singing/screaming and softer, fragile tones.
On the surface, it seems like Oxbow has simplified their approach and gotten a bit mellower compared to their earlier days. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that even though it has a softer, reflective feel there are still moments that are genuinely tense and some of the more aggressive outbursts from the band’s earlier days. Whether you want to call it experimental rock, blues, or any number of other musical genres, one thing you can say is that Oxbow never repeats themselves and still don’t sound like anyone else out there. Give it the time to sink in and I think you’ll find this to be another standout release from a band that rarely disappoints. Love’s Holiday is available from Ipecac Recordings.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg