The Portland Cello Project could have had a moment about a decade ago. The orchestra came together in 2006 with a focus on playing material not usually performed by cellos, and the musicians’ flexibility immediately became apparent. The group took off with its performance of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” but they soon became part of the indie-rock world. PCP, as it’s known, made a natural fit for acts like Laura Gibson or the Decemberists. In 2009, the group teamed up with Thao Nguyen of the Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and singer-songwriter Justin Power for The Thao & Justin Power Sessions, a record that put everyone’s skills to proper use.

An act like this risks turning into (or starting as) a novelty act. PCP (even in acknowledging its hallucinatory shortened name) has that aspect to it, a bit of cheekiness in covering OutKast or Radiohead. The group intends to bring together different strands of music and their connected cultures, so while a setlist might sound as if its creators drew it up with an ironic smirk, that would be at least a little off. On Sessions, everyone involved focuses enough to keep the performances at a proper level of seriousness while letting PCP wander enough to draw the fun out of variety.

The album centers on songs by Thao and Power, and Thao’s vocals unsurprisingly drive much of the album. “Tallymarks” fits perfectly with an orchestral arrangement. The strings support her wintry meditations and letting her lyrics stay in the foreground gives the whole piece strength. Hearing Thao’s voice outside of its usual sort of setting—far removed from the demands of A Man Alive—makes for a unique listen, partly because it fits so well in the smoother setting.

Power jumps out less; his songs and vocal performances tend to merge with the group as if he’d actually been cutting an orchestral indie record around that time. That putative album would have been required to have a rustic album cover. Mixed with Thao’s songs, Power’s tracks add a conversational feel to the whole disc. The group moves between tones and moods with fluency.

The disc also includes some more traditional compositions, like John Tavener’s “The Lamb.” That piece’s loveliness finds a counterargument in Norfolk & Western’s “Turkish Wine,” a darker piece that works just as well as noisy rock. In the midst of the record, PCP perform “Por Una Cabeza,” the one tango everyone knows thanks to Scent of a Woman, Schindler’s List and everything else. The version here is fine on its own, but as part of the album, it’s a nice reminder of the sort of musical grounding from which the whole project grows.

Of course, what would a disc like this be without just a little novelty. In this case, it comes with Pantera’s “Mouth for War,” metal by cello. The orchestra dives in with no hint of irony in the cover. Its dark energy brings the first third of the disc to a peak, letting Thao’s “Tallymarks” redirect the stretch of music that follows. In lesser hands, it would have been a joke, but PCP just uses it as part of their bigger statement. The group’s continued since then, recently taking on hip-hop and Radiohead and continuing to gain particular acclaim for their concerts. In 2009, they hit on a special moment, and 10 years later it still sings.

  • Interview: Douglas Jenkins of Portland Cello Project

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