Hand up if you’re a fan of O.A.R.—the veterans of freewheeling, reggae-tinged jams and inspirational lyrics. Now put your hand down if you loved “Shattered” and don’t give a lick about 18-minute live versions of “That Was A Crazy Game Of Poker”. I probably just lost half the crowd, and this is the kind of divisive career path that O.A.R. has taken. At one point, they were a Christian-influenced, less weird Phish. Since 2006, they’ve been more like Dave Matthews Band. And on King, O.A.R. play with even more radio-friendly structures, a move guaranteed to alienate some fans while gaining plenty of others.
Case in point, King has 16 tracks, and none of them crest the 4:30 mark. This is unheard of in the O.A.R. discography—Soul’s Aflame alone featured four six-minute-plus compositions, and that album only had 11 tracks.
Popular reference points are clear throughout King. “Taking On The World Today” sounds like the less insipid cousin of a Train song. “Dangerous Connection” and “Gotta Be Wrong Sometimes” could have been radio hits a decade ago, and “Heaven” sounds like it was made to duet with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, trading off lines on the chorus and everything. Mark my words: If that single does anything at all, it will be performed on the upcoming season of The Voice.
But the reference points are just that—stylistic nods that are still soundly O.A.R. compositions. O.A.R. sounds like Train in the way that New York rap upstart Action Bronson sounds like Ghostface Killah—no matter the similarities, you’ll never hear a Bronselini track and think you’re listening to Supreme Clientele.
The first few songs may turn off longtime fans who have felt dismay over the increasingly “mainstream” quality of recent albums, but anyone who takes the time to dig deep into King will find something to enjoy. The instrumental shifts and solos of “Fire” are made for live shows, and I can see it becoming as big a fan favorite as “Right On Time”. The title track will bring a whole new energy (and a DJ?) to O.A.R. sets, and the three short interludes offer a poignant reminder that if you give these guys instruments and let them run, they’ll cook up some funky grooves.
There are moments of overkill—the drum machine backbeat and “woah-oh oh-ohhh” backup vocals on “Back To One” sound a shade too much like American Idol runner-up shlock, and “Are You Low” is just lackluster. But even at its shlockiest, Roberge sounds great, and the songs are infectious. Really, the difference between “old” and “new” O.A.R. isn’t that stark. The lyrical content hasn’t changed—songs of redemption, sorrow, friendship, love, and poker. Only the packaging has changed. It’s more compact. Economical. Radio-friendly in a way that is the polar opposite of “Toy Store” or “Delicate Few”. Both of those songs are easily translated into incredible live performances; the question is whether “Heaven” will become the nine-minute improvised cornerstone of future shows or the three-minute throwaways that satisfy an unavoidable portion of ticket holders.
How King is received by various fan factions is something that O.A.R. can’t control. All they can do is just plow forward creatively and trust that the most inspirational lyric on the album, delivered by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of all people, is true: “When you change yourself, the world around you changes.”