It's just simply not the sort of thing you hear very often, a cello orchestra playing indie rock songs alongside classical pieces, covering Britney Spears or working with Horse Feathers, creating melodramatic orchestra songs next to indie gems with a distinct Portland sensibility. But that's exactly what the Portland Cello Project (PCP) aims to do. Their debut album The Thao and Justin Powers Sessions enlists the collaboration of those two musicians for a seamless mix of orchestra to indie rock, and while they highlight the strength and beauty of the cello with grand flourishes, it is the songs with Thao and Justin singing that makes the album remarkable, on its own and without the premise of the PCP behind it.
It's a coincidence that local musician Justin Powers share the same first name to Justin Vernon, the dark and brilliant voice behind Bon Iver, because when he sings along those aching strings, and each swoop of the melody carries his conviction of his words, the similarity is startling. But Justin Powers can certainly hold his own, and this is where the plucked melodies of the orchestra become integral to his songs. Thao's voice is refreshing, sprouting from the vines of the instruments in "Beat (Health, Life, & Fire)." Her voice is clear and toned, a glimmer and a polished key that fits just right. Water droplets on certain leaves the day after a thunderstorm, building cathedrals, dancing on cellos. Thao and Justin Powers's styles are varied, yet both write the sort of songs that should be cherished, tucked in between the pages of forgotten dairies or chanted on a walk on an early morning. And of course, always, operating above the cellos themselves.
The instruments are astonishing creatures, versatile and emotional, capturing joy and subtlety to turbulence in a moment's change. The instrumental tracks highlight the beauty of the arrangements wonderfully, portraying stories within the dips and explosions of the flickering strings. But of course, when the Portland Cello Project incorporates those beautiful cellos into the songs and talented voices, their project comes alive, and the musicians compliment the singers with a precise wonderful beauty. -Laura Yan