The Oarsman, Writing House LP -- Album Review

Hey Friends,

Sam here. Every month I'm going to start to review albums from local bands that I admire. I would like to help build the Chicago music scene in any way I can, and I think that album reviews are a way for myself and Sedgewick as a band to begin that work. Through shedding light on our fellow musicians, we expose ourselves to great new music and also play a small part in growing the musical community here as a whole. Please check out all the bands I review. And I'd also encourage you to not just check them out, but let their music sit with you for a while. Listen through the entire album. Believe me, the best music is the music that takes a while to love.


The Oarsman - Writing House LP (2013)

I have always wondered what would have happened if Dashboard Confessional grew up and matured their sound with age, if perhaps I could ache nostalgically for acoustic rock when I was in my late twenties just as much as I did when I was 17. Alas, I have mostly discarded the entire genre from my music collection since, due to growing older and developing more complex emotions than madly-in-love and heartbroken-and-vengeful. This, and the stigma surrounding the scene, has always kept me from coming back.

But thankfully, and I hope I’m not being offensive with the comparison, The Oarsman's 2013 LP The Writing House, has restored my faith in the power of solid acoustic pop. Founder and principal songwriter Marcus Maloney’s understated songwriting style and honest, heartfelt lyrics sends the listener to a place of innocence that feels like a fond memory of childhood we’ve forgotten with age.

With a “rotating cast of ruffians,” as described on his Facebook page, Maloney wrote, produced and performed on the record at Ethnomusikology Recording Studios in Chicago, IL. The result is a beautiful and melancholic account of a relationship slowly unraveling, and the strange feeling of hope-tinged sadness that comes from all forms of suffering.

The album starts off with the uptempo ballad, “Dreamcatcher,” where Maloney first showcases his woozy falsetto that we come to know as a close friend by the end of the album. The crooning refrain, accompanied by subtle electronic textures and handclaps, recreates the joyful exuberance of a new relationship, and invites us to join in on the anthem.

“The Landlord” and “Waltz for Harry” showcases Maloney’s gift for lyricism, as well as his economic use of song structure and poetic language to create a powerful image in just a two-minute song.  One can hear in his voice and expression a more tender Colin Meloy, enhanced by the vocal-fried lethargy of a tenor David Bazan. In “Waltz for Harry,” we feel the first hints of bittersweetness as the consciousness of time past becomes clear, “There was a moment // now it’s over, gone // There was a time when it felt like forever." 

Halfway through the album, we are stopped in our tracks by “Porch Light,” a slow-moving, finger-plucked lament about the sadness that comes from trying to help someone else without knowing how to help yourself. “Trenches” takes us to a similar place, exploring the darker side of Maloney’s musical mind, letting the simplicity and space within the music speak louder than the notes themselves.

Much like the previous two songs, the latter half of the album opens up into more spacious soundscapes than the former, saying more with less both lyrically and compositionally. The refrain on “First Flight" looks back on a relationship tinged with the naiveté all first loves can relate to (“I miss the idea of the love that we had”), while the album's closer, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” feels like an empty lullaby to the ghost of a lost lover. The last chord and lyric leaves the listener with an open-ended longing, closing with the devastating line, “waiting for you to make a move.”

My favorite track on the record, however, has to go to “Make a Tape.” The simplicity in the arrangement and the mood it evokes is completely unique from the other tracks, yet the lyrics place it as a vital part of the narrative, making it feel like an appendage to the story somehow. There is something starkly haunting about the lyrics whispered by Maloney, “If I do what you want // instead of what I need // will I fit in?” and, "If I can’t forget // the things that you regret // will you choose him? // It’s a trap.” It is the biggest glimpse we get into the narrator’s cynicism, and one of the most vulnerable moments on the record.

The Writing House by The Oarsman takes acoustic pop into a new and exciting realm where anthemic melodies and catchy piano hooks, instead of coming across gimmicky and trite, bring us into a fresh and vivid time when the grass was a little greener, and the smells, tastes and sounds were clearer. While admittedly on a couple tracks there were moments that the music felt a bit long-winded, it more than made up for it with the authenticity of its creators and the powerful narrative behind it. Sitting on the record for a few days and coming back to it made me truly realize how much I missed both the music itself and the memories it evoked for me. 

I can’t wait to see what direction is next for The Oarsman. As it stands with this LP, there’s plenty of fertile ground from which to grow.