Mighty Aphrodite: Love’s Holiday By Oxbow

The Californian art-rockers' most tender album still packs plenty of punch, finds JR Moores

Towards the end of The Beatles’ Anthology documentary, Paul McCartney makes a cheerful sweeping statement about his old band’s back-catalogue. Most of their songs, he claims, "dealt with love, peace, understanding. It’s all very ‘All You Need Is Love’… There’s a very good spirit behind it all." While this makes for a moment of rose-tinted warmth, especially after George Harrison’s typically gloomier observation about The Beatles having sacrificed their "nervous systems" to the masses, the exceptions are plentiful. What about McCartney’s incongruously jaunty song about a hammer-wielding psychopath that almost drove his fellow band members loopy because he insisted on recording so many takes? Or ‘Paperback Writer’, written to meet the explicit challenge of avoiding the subject of love altogether and thus opening the door to a world of possibilities? There are Lennon’s crueller, sorrowful or more surreal moments, plus that postmodern piece about the onion. There’s also McCartney’s accidental Manson-rouser, ‘Helter Skelter’, and Harrison’s expression of resentment towards paying tax. The list goes on. Peace, love and understanding doesn’t tell the half of it.

The slightly ambiguous title of Oxbow’s new record could suggest the absence of love, however temporary. Perhaps Cupid has been enjoying a couple of relaxing weeks in the Algarve before he straps the quiver back on and returns to the business of arrowing Hellenistic Viagra into the pulses of suitable couples.

That said, the promo sheet for Oxbow’s eighth album brings to mind the thoughts of a certain hippie-ish knight of the realm. "I’ve always been chagrined that no one understood that our songs were love songs," says vocalist Eugene Robinson. "But now listening to a record of exclusively love songs I can see how no one saw that."

It is easy to understand why listeners missed the overriding theme. Oxbow’s 1989 debut was titled Fuckfest, not a phrase that appears on many commercially produced Valentine’s cards. People could also be forgiven for believing that a lot of the band’s material has actually focused on hate. Hatred of the self. (Robinson has described the first two LPs as notes for a suicide that, fortunately, he didn’t commit, partly because those records happened to be so well-received). Hatred of others. (On 1995’s Let Me Be A Woman Robinson shifted his attention, wisely enough, towards the "many who deserved to die a lot more readily than I did.") Lingering in the background has been a hatred of the various oppressive systems and terrible human traits that keep us forever divided and universally destructive. A lot of Robinson’s lyrics have also been inspired by love affairs gone horribly sour. Then again, if you flip any of the above items on its head or consider the true sentiment behind all this, it could feasibly be in the spirit of "Why can’t we just get along, man?" Oxbow: brutal noise-rock’s answer to The New Seekers.

The music itself, we are told, comes from a place of love. Guitarist, keyboardist and composer Niko Wenner based the new songs on tunes he would sing to his young children. Now that those footings have been fleshed out into rock songs with lyrics added by Robinson, Wenner might think twice about using them to put his kiddies softly to sleep. "PROSTITUTION!" screams Robinson on the second track. At various other points, he sings of knives, monsters, misery, spread legs, the "dangerous game" that is "fucking", burning buildings and suicide (again). Goodnight, darlings! Don’t have any nightmares, will you?

Love’s Holiday begins rambunctiously enough to satisfy Oxbow’s established demographic of heavy-cravers. ‘Dead Ahead’ has a distinctly Jesus Lizard flavour thanks to its spiky guitar sound, swinging rhythm and vocal wails that sit somewhere between distressed and hostile. The second track is similarly hefty, with its dramatic stop-start riff and complementary synth gurgle.

The first big surprise arrives with ‘Lovely Murk’, a Slint-ish post-rock ballad on which Kristin Hayter (aka Lingua Ignota) provides the kind of spiritual-sounding choral assistance that actually wouldn’t feel out of place on something by Moby. On another song, Robinson is joined by Roger Joseph Manning Jr. Elsewhere, there’s a 15-person choir.

Would it be fair to say that the Stanford-educated singer, whose day job is in journalism, has traditionally worked harder on his lyricism than the vocal melodies on which his words are hung? It’s not just the help he gets from the guest vocalists on this record that suggests the balance is tipping and Robinson is well on his way to reaching his full potential as an outright crooner. (Crooning, incidentally, is an extremely broad church, as Alex Coles’ new book on the subject shows us, through several case studies which include Frank Sinatra, Bryan Ferry, Grace Jones and Nas. Is it too late to add a supplementary chapter on Robinson?) This style is at its most explicit on the decidedly grungy ‘Million Dollar Weekend’. It’s the kind of tune that would suit the lungs of Eddie Vedder or, when he was still with us, Chris Cornell.

One of the choir-accompanied numbers, ‘All Gone’, even suggests that — if they really wanted to — Oxbow could look to fill the void left by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds now that the bat-releasing, mercy seated, red-right-hander has become dead in the minds of all upstanding anti-monarchists.

To be fair to it, Oxbow’s music has always been more slyly sophisticated than has been recognised by those fickle surface readings which have been happy to emphasise its harshness or focus on the physical presence of Robinson who has, at times, had less regard for onstage clothing than Gypsy Rose Lee. This is largely thanks to Wenner’s clever arrangements. Here, more obvious than ever are the elements that conventional thinking would consider the most elegant aspects.

That is not to say Oxbow are about to renounce their artistic credentials and book a co-headlining tour with Goo Goo Dolls. The distortion on ‘The Night The Room Started Burning’ is as smoky as the fire described in its lyric. Math-rocking harder than Pissed Jeans’ algebra homework, ‘The Second Talk’ balances anguished howls against sinister passages of spoken word.

The final track, on which the large choir reappears, is so slow and feedback-ridden it would fit neatly onto an abstract-minimalist drone-metal classic like Monoliths & Dimensions by SUNN O))). "Can you believe us? Will you believe us? Will you come and see?", Robinson asks on that climactic song. Appropriate answers to those three questions would include "Just about, even some of the love stuff", "Well, okay, you are very persuasive" and "Where can I book my ticket?"

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today