On Oakley Hall’s I’ll Follow You, “Alive Among Thieves” opens with a toned-down version of the Krautrock guitar line that began their wonderful previous album Gypsum Strings. The act of subduing that phrase could suggest that the band has settled into a rut, coasting on a formula. Fortunately, despite this one minor oddity (tucked away at 10th on the tracklist), the band has improved in almost every way since last year. While they’re not as reckless on record, they’re every bit as exciting, having found ways to harness their intensity and maintain the smart, accessible lyrics.
This album’s first track, “Marine Life”, does a better job of demonstrating where the band’s arrived. The song repeats a simple guitar riff as vocalist Pat Sullivan sings a calm country melody. Sullivan sings with unique phrasing—“Woulda wrote another song, but I don’t / know what the first word is / Or the chorus”—causing the steadier repetition of the chorus lines to develop added importance. That they lead into a heavier guitar part shows that just beneath Sullivan’s questioning love hums a wildness trying to reveal itself.
The band has an incredible knack for trying to draw ugly sounds out of the beautiful, and beautiful sounds out of ugly set-ups. “Marine Life” shows the former aesthetic, while its successor “No Dreams” shows how lovely dirtkicking can be, letting Rachel Cox and Sullivan harmonize their twang over a band trying to leave its country side to get to its German side, as the overdriven guitars do something bigger than a choogle. This track comes closest to the traditional recklessness, but it’s a more refined decay than we might expect.
Oakley Hall’s mixture of rough and pretty sounds is neither a gimmick nor a standard they maintain. The band members have too much to offer to benefit from their style (the opposite is true). “First Frost”, probably the most stable and direct song, reveals how beautifully they can craft a simple piece. Cox gets the spotlight here, delivering a smooth country vocal over sparse instrumentation, interacting with the harpsichord and guitars to develop the autumnal mood as much through her tone as through her lyrical content. This loveliness gives way to the guitars of “Alive Among Thieves”, the juxtaposition highlighting the different facets of the band’s presentation, as well as pointing out that Oakley Hall’s sequencing skills have improved; if there was a flaw on Gypsum Strings, it was the slighly imperfect track order.
The only problem with the track order on I’ll Follow You is that it’s difficult to make it to the second half of the disc; it’s not that that half doesn’t live up to the first half, but that the first four songs are so good that they need repeated listens. “Angela” contains the most traditional performance, with simple, but well-blended guitar, violin, and banjo parts accompanying countryish harmonies. Sullivan and Cox, as always, nail their vocals, oddly suggesting that the musicians don’t actually steal the show on this one. (A friend says Cox reminds her of Karen Carpenter; it might not be cool to admit to knowing what Ms. Carpenter sounds like, so I won’t confess that I’d rather hear Cox).
With all the beauty/ugliness tension on the disc, sooner or later a lyric had to sum it up in its emotional equivalent. On “Rue the Blues”, a dischordantly jaunty jig, Sullivan sings, “If this is affection, it has a funny way of feeling like a double-dealing”. In Oakley Hall’s songs, there’s always something more at work that you think, no matter how straightforward their music and lyrics can seem at times. The band knows how to utilize this contrast, hiding little nuggets in their tunes, and turning lovely country-rock melodies into rocky grinds. As skilled as they are, they also know when to just let their simple art stay focused, and it’s this sort of unified variety that makes I’ll Follow You a disc worth going after.