Power-pop duo Oppenheimer may have come together in Belfast, but their sensibility was always more closely attuned with their North American brethren than fellow UK or European acts. That’s probably why the band spent so much of its five-year career on the road in North America opening for bands like They Might Be Giants, OKGo, and The Presidents of the United States of America. It may also explain why The Racket Takes Its Toll, the band’s new posthumous album, has yet to get an official release outside of North America. Yes, posthumous. Oppenheimer shut things down with a farewell show back in December of 2009, but they left behind an album’s worth of new material and b-sides. Bar/None, with the blessing of the band, has assembled those songs into this new album, and it sounds as vital as the band’s previous two records.
“Opp Ex Machina” kicks things off with a synth-backed lullaby, as drummer Shaun Robinson’s tenor voice gently sings, closing by counting backwards from “10, 9, 8, 7…”. As he hits “1”, the drums, bass, and synths kick into gear and the rest of the song has a widescreen, opening theme song kind of feel. The cheerily romantic “Hearts Don’t Listen” follows this up with a high-energy, noisy synth-rock song. The singsongy chorus, “Hearts don’t listen / Even when we need them / People shouldn’t trust them / But we need that feeling”, is an instant earworm, and keeps the song grounded through all the synth noises. Third track “42nd Century” keeps things chugging right along with, if possible, an even noisier chorus backed by a carnival organ melody line. At this point, The Racket Takes Its Toll makes a lot of sense as an album title.
The thing about Oppenheimer, though, is that Robinson and keyboardist-guitarist Rocky O’Reilly had a very strong sense of melody. So even though they loved to pile on layers and layers of distorted synths in their songs, they never lost sight of the melodic hooks. And that stays true of most of the songs on this album. By the time O’Reilly makes his first vocal appearance on the album, on fourth track “It’s Just the Drink Talking”, listeners are so accustomed to all the synth effects that his trademark vocodored “robot vocals” sound perfectly natural, blending right into the sonic landscape.
The only place that The Racket sags is right in the middle. Usually when O’Reilly and Robinson have a melody that isn’t quite up to par, they make up for it with their high energy level. But “Songs in Semaphore” never really takes off, and it’s followed immediately by the almost eight-minute “Single Syllable Colours”. The first half of that song is a gentle ballad that goes nowhere, while the second half wastes some great ‘90s-style guitar noise on a limp chorus.These two tracks suck a lot of the momentum out of the album.
Fortunately, the back half of the record picks it right up again. “Let’s Get the Hell Out of Texas” is a 100 seconds of driving force, making a pretty good case for what synth-punk would sound like if more bands attempted it. “Meet Me in the City” is a solid take on a disco-style club track that once again uses O’Reilly’s robot vocals to good effect. “Getting By” is an acoustic guitar-driven ballad that is very pretty, and, at just over two minutes, doesn’t wear out its welcome. The warm, mid-tempo “We Ride Invisible Rollercoasters” closes the album on a note that may be a bit gentle considering one of the band’s biggest strengths it its energy. But the sentimental refrain “You were never meant for this world” is the kind of self-epitaph that was probably hard to resist.
The Racket Takes Its Toll makes a good case that Oppenheimer was a band still in its prime when they decided to call it quits. All 14 of these songs aren’t top-notch, but they were never intended to all go on this theoretical third album. As a combination final album and vault-clearing exercise, this record holds up exceedingly well. Fans of the band will be pleased, and power-pop aficionados who never got around to checking out Oppenheimer would do well to listen to this album and find out what they were missing.
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// Notes from the Road
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