Review: Peter Oren, "Living By The Light" 

Oren's voice is his most arresting instrument

click to enlarge peter_oren_.jpg
Peter Oren
Living By the Light

Peter Oren has a voice that invites comparison. Low and gritty, flecked with rust and grit, expressive in a way that hints at larger truths just outside the perimeter of his lyrics, Oren’s scratchy baritone recalls the studied stoicism of Bill Callahan, the quiet-storm soulfulness of Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples, and the rural raconteurism of William Elliott Whitmore. It’s a commanding instrument, one that sets him apart from a legion of acoustic folkies, yet this Columbus-born/Bloomington-based musicians sounds like no one other than himself on his solo debut, Living By the Light.

To say that Oren is based anywhere is misleading; he’s a restless traveler around the country as well as a professional protestor whose arrest sheet dwarfs his musical catalog. Transience is the animating theme of his songs, whether he’s singing about homelessness on “In a Bind” or rootlessness on “I Wish I Were a Tree.” Living plays like a picaresque, each song given its own unique flourish: the dancing fiddle on the title track, the saxophone on “Indecision.” Oren tends to keep his vocals straightforward, rarely overselling the ideas or the emotions, and that restraint only makes these songs more powerful, like puzzle boxes demanding to be solved.

As a songwriter, Oren is fond of concrete details and big statements, although Living By the Light is best when he’s in storyteller mode. Opener “Lake Crescent” is a delicate tale of two lovers who meet somewhere out in America and part ways forever, and Oren’s delivery wrings both the melancholy and the optimism from their brief encounter. Similarly, on “French Press” he begs a lover not to get dressed and go to work, somehow locating the perfect balance of sexual need and offhand humor.

Occasionally, that sense of human-scale pathos gets lost amid the big issues and bigger ideas. “CAFO” devises a clunky metaphor comparing the housing bubble to chicken farming, yet the lyrics and rhymes sound more clever than impassioned.

And yet, even when the songwriting falters, there remains a single perspective tying all of these songs together: a sense of a voice connected to a real person who has seen so much of America and is reporting back to his listeners. As both a traveler and a musician, Oren has the guts to engage the wide world, to interrogate the things we take for granted, and to search for some common experience, which means Living By the Light should be the first volley in a fruitful career.

Peter Oren plays July 31 at Player's Pub in Bloomington with Quiet Hollers 

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