OXBOW are a legitimate musical institution, having been serving up their unique brand of avantgarde noise rock since 1988. Yes, you heard right, the goddamn eighties! A time where CDs were the cutting edge of audio technology and streaming services were science fiction. Yet, in their thirty-five years of existence they have only released seven albums. This should tell you something about Oxbow…they like to take their sweet time. Everything is meticulous, from the darkly poetic lyrics to the erratic, but strangely beautiful compositions. Even their recent minimalistic artwork has been designed by the much respected and multi-talented Aaron Turner. Basically, these guys like to do things properly.
There was an almighty ten-year gap between 2007’s excellent The Narcotic Story and 2017’s Thin Black Duke, but man it was worth the wait. Featuring highly in many AOTY lists, it felt like a coming of (considerable) age for this seminal band, where everything just clicked into place. The additions of trumpets, strings and piano were expertly arranged by the classically trained Nikko Wenner (guitars). Eugene S. Robinson (vocals) was at the top of his game, utilising a full range of croons, hushed whispers, and anguished cries. The whole album was polished, and confident without losing any of their serrated edge or lip curling attitude. This might sound like a strange comparison, but for me it was their Jane Doe. As in, this was an album where their sound was fully realised, honed, and harnessed with near faultless production (Joe Chiccarelli won a Grammy for his skills behind the desk that year).
Fast forward six years to 2023 and we have album number eight, Love’s Holiday. Thin Black Duke was always going to be a tough act to follow, which could explain why Oxbow have gone in a very different direction to its predecessor. Love’s Holiday is quite literally an album of love songs, but fear not, these aren’t love songs as you typically know them. There are no mawkish ballads here, all the twisted trademarks of Oxbow are present and correct. However, in places, this also feels like their most accessible album to date, and I can see it picking up new converts along the way. The single “1000 Hours” isn’t just melodic it’s catchy as hell, with a simple plodding drumbeat, memorable chorus, and a soaring choir of backing vocals. A bona fide earworm you’ll be happily humming for weeks.
The choir are a recurring feature throughout the album, and let’s be clear, this isn’t one or two singers they’ve layered up in the mix, we’re talking about a fully-fledged fifteen-person choir. They help lift tracks to a different level, adding an ethereal quality to “All Gone” and the Tom Waits-esque closer “Gunwhale”. You’ll even find Lingua Ignota’s haunting operatic melodies on “Lovely Murk”. The vocals were clearly an area the band wanted to explore and elevate, but this doesn’t mean Robinson’s performance is lacking in any way, in fact it’s one of his most mature and diverse displays. Perhaps there are fewer of his low-end ramblings on offer, but we’re compensated with more lounge-style serenades which complement the efforts of the additional performers.
It's not all soprano and falsetto though; there are also moments of darkness, as you’d expect. The jagged Oxbow eccentricity is ever present on “The Second Talk”, with an enjoyable Robinson monologue exclaiming that “Fucking is a dangerous game” in between stabs of staccato guitar. “Icy White & Christaline” is another of the more aggressive offerings, with screams of “For the prosecution, on the charge of prostitution” (see, I told you these weren’t your average love songs). Both tracks are welcome nods to their past in amongst the more tranquil explorations on display.
I must admit whilst certain tracks stood out immediately, the album as a whole didn’t grab me on the first listen, but I was keen to go back for more, and was duly rewarded. In some ways this is a stripped back, minimal Oxbow, but while the distortion and noise are not always present there is still a hell of a lot to take in. With frequent plays the layers peel back, revealing individual elements in all their glory. The rhythm section, for example, is superbly understated throughout. There are also subtle touches of synth that sneak their way in to add something different. Once you’re over the initial shock of the change in approach, you’ll relax and let everything wash over you. It’s a beautiful thing.
Listening to Thin Black Duke was like sitting in a smoke-filled underground jazz club, while Love’s Holiday transports you to a beautiful old theatre full of cascading light and silk backdrops. It’s possible that some seasoned Oxbow fans will find this album too drastic a departure from their early noise rock roots, but to me it feels like a natural evolution of their sound. If Thin Black Duke was their Jane Doe, then Love’s Holiday could be their Jupiter moment. It might split the crowd, but a lot of good albums do, and you can’t help but appreciate how ambitious, intelligent, and extravagant the band have been with this release.