The word “underground” must hold special significance for Marykate O’Neil. The Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter took the name of her third full-length record from a book she read on the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), a network of zines specializing in countercultural editorials that boomed in the late ‘60s. The UPS no longer exists, but O’Neil steadfastly believes the insights, artistry, and independent spirit that once graced the pages of the East Village Other and the San Francisco Oracle are alive and well today—just a little harder to track down than they used to be.
No doubt O’Neil sees the relation of this story to her own. She’s one of the artists who exist in the elusive “underground” of the 21st century, where the rise of networking sites and the sheer number of voices calling for our attention compromise our ability to distinguish brilliance from bullshit. There’s no one-stop-shop for independent art that O’Neil can use to reach as many ears as she might wish, and despite hooking up with Jill Sobule and producers Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney) and Ken Maiuri (Pedro the Lion), she remains largely East Coast-bound, her name less familiar as it heads toward the Pacific Ocean.
“I don’t want to leave the underground”, O’Neil sings on the title track, so perhaps her heart isn’t at all set on mainstream listenership. But there is a conspicuous difference between her and the underground artists she shares a zeitgeist with. From singer/songwriters to noise-rockers to improvisational experimentalists, it’s safe to claim that indie musicians are bound by some degree of iconoclasm. If x represents the time-tested formulas and middle-of-the-road sound of mainstream rock, indie musicians will rough up x, add mystery and intrigue to x, juxtapose x with surprising lyricism, or try valiantly to jettison x altogether. Marykate O’Neil plays x. Even to those who don’t keep Jill Sobule and Lisa Loeb on heavy rotation, O’Neil’s adult-oriented rock with folk and country overtones will feel incredibly familiar; versions of it pipe through the PA systems of supermarkets, restaurants, and drugstores across the country. Her lyrics, folksy and strikingly average, may speak of escape—she takes pills while traveling in “Nashville”, and calls in sick to catch a band’s set in “One Thousand Times a Day”—but the music wants to stay right here.
Not that Underground doesn’t sound nice at times, but used to describe independent music, “nice” is almost always a backhanded compliment, signifying a shortage of substance or reasons to pay much attention to it. ‘Oh, this is nice,’ I thought when I first heard “Green Street”, the album’s starter and de facto single, and regarding the following three tracks: ‘This is nice, too.’ Niceness swiftly became blandness with repeated listens, and after a while I couldn’t approach it without cleansing my palate first. O’Neil and her small army of collaborators threw a cornucopia of instruments at Underground, far more than the record’s AOR categorization would suggest: guitars, violins, keyboards and electronics, organs, harmoniums, tambourines, glockenspiels, shakers, bottles, and even the human knee. Weirdly, this only amplifies the music’s x-ness. “Green Street” is the record’s high point, but it still sags under the weight of everything that went into creating its static sound. Sharper production might have given each instrument a clearer identity and a symbiotic function within the overall system. Conversely, I longed for a lo-fi crackle absent in the country-folk numbers “Nashville” and “Saved”, gummy and fatigued where they should have been dusty and raw.
O’Neil’s own voice emerges as the most prominent instrument of all (in typical singer/songwriter fashion), and it could prove to be a deal breaker. Falling in between Lisa Loeb and Retsin’s Cynthia Nelson, but with a tarter, less precious quality than either of them, her vocals never quite find the correct balance. When she sings softly her voice quavers, but not delicately, when she sings loudly it tends to blare, and when it’s somewhere in the middle it still sounds loud. It’s a shame that Auto-Tune is so prevalent in the music industry, but O’Neil could have used it in spots: in “Saved” she tends to go sharp, in “Attention”, flat. There isn’t much more to say about it, really. The slightly nasally, slightly earthy tone of O’Neil’s voice has its fans, and they’ll appreciate its authenticity, warts and all. But for my money it’s a detraction, a repellant that hits the ears all wrong and a flaming hoop to jump through if I’m to enjoy the listening experience.
Criticizing this album makes me feel like I’ve just kicked a kitten, if it’s any consolation. Despite the passion Underground fails to invoke in me, I can tell that O’Neil’s heart is very much in it. Just because she plays it extraordinarily safe doesn’t mean she aimed for edginess and simply missed the mark. And even if an abhorrent record is strangely more of an accomplishment than the nice one this sometimes is, we’d be remiss to take its pleasantness for granted. But solely as a piece of music that can be bought, popped into a disc drive, and played, Underground is thoroughly unimpressive. What we have here is a paradox: O’Neil doesn’t align herself with mainstream culture, even though the manner in which she and her musicians handle the recording suggests otherwise. And yet, there’s so little to separate Underground from singer/songwriter albums of its ilk that it’s difficult to imagine O’Neil reaching many more listeners than she now does, especially without taking care of the sticking points the next time she decides to release something. If she doesn’t ever want to leave the underground, she may get her wish.