There’s a nice song deep on Phonograph’s sophomore album, OKNO, that drifts along in a euphonious swirl of ambient-roosty, quiet-noisy, mainstream-indie, organic-electronic, Brit-influenced Americana. The song is called “American Music”, and ain’t it the truth. Indie-rock is a head-swimmingly dense scene, but Phonograph is a band out of Brooklyn that helps define what American rock sounds like in 2009, if such a thing is possible.
A few years back, some rock journalists were calling Wilco the “American Radiohead”, and, if Radiohead formed a template for British rock bands for the last decade and a half, then we’re now seeing the Wilco Effect on the American scene. Like Wilco, Phonograph incorporates the above-mentioned binary oppositions into a blend of soulful roots songs and avant-garde blippy dissonance, the product of a thick soup of influences that have helped create an album with a broad landscape of rock-and-roll idioms. Call it the Melting Pop. The result on Phonograph’s new album, though, is not one of sprawling disunity; Phonograph aren’t attempting a variety of genre exercises. Instead, the diversity of elements is evenly spread throughout, showing up in every song, and ultimately creating something of a cohesive statement.
OKNO predictably moves the band further away from the rootsy Neil Young-ish beginnings heard on their well-received 2007 self-titled debut, and they telegraph their intention to stretch out as the new album opens with a live-wire feedback crackle before moving into a dischordant guitar skronk, finally settling on a strumming acoustic guitar, an insistent snare beat, a disorienting robotic keyboard line, and peals of guitar freakouts. The thing is, there’s a lovely song (“You/Me”) in there, as well, as Matthew Welsh sings a heartfelt melody that breaks down into a quiet bridge pinked with a wash of steel guitar. Next, the title track rolls back to a ‘60s folk-pop sound complete with a big, bright chorus and orchestral backdrops. The band brings in Grace Potter to duet with Welsh on “Wellwisher”, a droney anthem that nearly suffocates from studio embellishments, although Potter’s vocal performance, finally breaking out of her breathy murmur, saves the song by the end.
Phonograph aren’t ready to shed their alt-country label completely; songs like the hazy, somber “Are You Gonna” are twangy enough to keep No Depression readers interested. “Have I Told You” is the most Jeff Tweedy-esque moment here, in terms of melody, vocal delivery, and the noisy guitar chaos during the coda. And there’s a banjo clap-along instrumental, “Holy Rollers”, but a murky, inscrutable chant develops in there, so these guys are determined to buck convention even when trying to reach back toward traditionalism. There’s a relatively dreary drift to much of the album, even when the record sort of rocks, and the whole thing is shellacked with a layer of fuzzy reverb that, along with mostly sad-sack lyrics, gives the album a melancholy feel throughout.
For all of Phonograph’s sonic experimentation, the album wouldn’t work if the songs weren’t there, which they are, but the studio sound-effects do sometimes threaten to detract from the tunes—obviously, the unpredictable left-field bleeps and squeals might just turn out to be predictable if they’re overused, just as it grew wearisome that every other Wilco song would descend into noise-scape cacophony at the end. Phonograph manages to avoid these traps for the most part on OKNO, pushing experimentation just so far, but again they run right up against overkill at times. Still, this is a solid step forward for a band that brings impressive musicianship and no shortage of ideas to an album that sounds, despite their moniker, totally of the moment.