The Sin of Pleasantness
Graves, which consists of singer-songwriter Greg Olin and assorted guests, are a thoroughly pleasant band. Yes Yes Okay Okay is full of pretty, low-key melodies and little wisps of songs presented in medley format, tasteful guitar strumming, and a stumbling ramshackle drumbeat. Graves are not even afraid to be tuneful when they add experimental touches; the bursts of O’Rourkian static and atmospheric keyboard swirls are all immaculately arranged. I would wager that listening to the twenty-eight minutes of Yes Yes Okay Okay will be an enjoyable and pleasant experience for anyone who likes good old-fashioned indie-pop.
Is it enough to be pleasant, then? Does the fact that Yes Yes Okay Okay will have people humming as they listen to it make up for the fact that the same people would not be able to hum a note of it mere minutes after ejecting the disc? Rock and roll, after all, isn’t supposed to be pleasant in the way that Yes Yes Okay Okay is. Where are the big hooks? The grand rock moments? The stylistic shakeups? The rave-ups? The cathartic downers? For heaven’s sake, where’s the self-indulgence? There’s some mariachi-style horns on “Headphone Brigade” and a bit of Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips grandeur on the unimpeachable “Strength in ####‘s”, but the rest of the album plays it relatively safe. One gets the feeling that Graves mastermind Greg Olin would find, say, the relentless hooks of the Apples in Stereo or the alienating audacity of Kid A Radiohead downright tacky.
Yes Yes Okay Okay does not explore new ground, and Graves do not really distinguish themselves from their countless Portland brethren during the album’s brief running time. After writing this review, there is a serious risk that I will set aside this album and forget it entirely, like a beautiful dream instantly erased by the incessant ringing of an alarm clock.
Still, I really hope I do remember to spin Yes Yes Okay Okay a few more times in the future, just as a reminder that music is not all about the “earworm”. The fact that I could not, from memory, quote a single line from “Holding Your Arms” doesn’t matter. What matters is that this beautifully downbeat song kept me enraptured during its brief running time. There is something pure about music that refuses to get stuck in your conscious, music that instead sneaks away and endears itself to the subconscious. Music is meant to be an experience, after all, not just a carrier for a chorus that will get stuck in your brain, or, worse yet, an “artistic statement”.
Olin’s real strength lies in how he meticulously creates a listening experience that rewards the returning listener who is not turned off by the band’s too-amiable nature. If it fails as a “big statement” or a “masterpiece”, Yes Yes Okay Okay is almost a perfect treat for your ear. The album contains dozens of different instruments, played sparingly. The arrangement ensures that these instruments only get a few seconds worth of time in a track, creating an “implied orchestra” where the listener fills in the gaps of sound. The album is almost entirely mid-tempo, never succumbing into the tedium of the ballad or speeding up into the frivolity of a rocker, which gives the listener proper time to appreciate every little nuance of sound, every casual chord or charming handclap. Olin’s voice brings the whole project down to reality, his untrained singing and oblique lyrics hint at an underlying sadness that adds more emotional weight to this otherwise breezy album.
So, with Graves, Olin has found a project that manages to turn two of the major “sins” in modern pop music—pleasantness and a lack of memorable moments—and make them into artistic advantages. That is an achievement in itself, one that perhaps only Sean O’Hagan has managed to accomplish in modern pop history, but it still seems that Olin is slacking a little. Yeah Yeah Okay Okay works best when its scope is the widest, suggesting that if Olin could expand some of his ditties into epics he could break free from the three-minute pop song box he has holed himself up in. Heck, he could even release something a great deal better than “pleasant”.