REVIEW: Ezra Bell is Delightfully Different on “This Way to Oblivion”


Portland has long been known for being eccentric, and that eccentricity is part of the city’s charm. Even if you’ve never been to Portland, it’s easy to get that impression from Portlandia and from the bands the city has produced.

One of the bands the city has produced is Ezra Bell. This is a band that formed in 2013, and has been making unusual music since then. The new album This Way to Oblivion (Dutch Records) shows the band combining sounds and being experimental without being tough to listen to like a lot of experimental bands.

“I Love You Too” features vocals that sound something like a mix of Oliver Wood and Ray Davies. The clarinet remains in the background, but it remains the driver of the melody. With horns, piano, and unpredictable percussion, this is a song that just seems to swirl around you. It’s not necessarily the type of song that people blast from speakers, but blasting may not be a bad idea just so you can hear all of the different components of the melody.

With the unusual song structures and the vocals, it’s not inaccurate to say that this band is what might happen if Soul Coughing every collaborated with The Wood Brothers and Oliver Wood recited beat poetry. You hear woodwinds, horns, and a beat that doesn’t seem to adhere to any typical song structure. But it’s not just the song structure. Some of the song titles like “Marsha, It’s Your Peyote” and “Stipulations Don’t Suit You” make you wonder if you’ve stumbled onto some forgotten Tom Waits album.

“Tanner Thorne” is as unpredictable as any of the songs. This song is powered by the piano and the horns. The clarinet adds something of a jazz feel while the rest of the melody doesn’t fit easily into any one category. The jazz feel is enhanced by the backing vocals that hearken back to Billie Holiday in some strange way. You can hear the Billie holiday similarity even more in the latter part of the song. Honora Hildreth sings in a breathy voice that sounds like it was made for jazz in the 40s.

“Raise Your Hand if you Slept in Your Clothes” is a good example of how hard it would be to describe this band. In fact, if you tried to describe this band based on this song, the best advice is “good luck”. It’s part Dixieland, part jazz, part indie folk. Then you hear the jazz/gospel vocals about two and a half minutes in, and you realize that just listening is a far better option than trying to describe this to anyone.

This album may be tough to classify, but it’s not tough to listen to. You could say it’s challenging, but it’s challenging in a way that makes you listen intently so you can get some kind of grasp on all that’s happening in these songs. Whether you listen on headphones or on speakers, just let the music surround you and enjoy the listening experience. This Way to Oblivion will be available on April 3. Order your copy here.

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