Michigan’s Mason Proper is back with Olly Oxen Free, their second album. With only ten songs clocking in at a brisk 37 minutes, the band’s brevity works to their advantage. This is a focused, atmospheric low-rock album with dark edges and occasional bursts of punk energy. The five-piece band takes full advantage of their two guitars and keyboards setup to provide a lot of variety from song to song. But it’s Jonathan Visger’s distinctive voice that is most responsible for Mason Proper’s compelling sound.
The album opens with soft organ chords, a slow-picked guitar line, and a mid-tempo driving drumbeat in “Fog”. Visger’s high-pitched voice seems to slide in and out of focus as he sings “I tried to warn you / But you’re out of your head”. It’s a quiet but compelling start that is quickly followed up with “Point A to Point B”, a more traditional pop song that is nevertheless in a minor key and colored by regret. Visger’s voice has a tinge of melancholy here, and a line like “In past lives I was wealthy, so probably unhappy / I’m so glad I died” actually works in this context instead of sounding ridiculous.
The middle of the album features a trio of interesting songs. “Only a Moment” grooves along like a lost Spoon song, with a huge backbeat and a great break where Visger belts out “Don’t worry / don’t wooooorrrry!” The second half of the song features a brief moment where the drums go into double-time and a syncopated guitar riff deepens the initial groove. “Out Dragging the River” is the album’s warmest moment, with a simple but effective piano line from Matt Thomson. Visger’s emotional performance manages to bring maximum plaintiveness out of lines like, “I’m think I’m through with the fighting / Chop off my heavy, heavy head”. Next up, “In the Mirror” is short and spare, with a single guitar and a simple beat on the bass drum and what sounds like a stick against a metal pole. It contrasts the previous song by sounding cold and distant.
The seventh track, “Downpour”, is a bit of a misstep. It has a bit of a spy-movie feel, but the song doesn’t seem to go anywhere and feels interminably long at nearly five minutes. “Shiny” may have Visger’s most oddball vocal performance. He pushes his voice in another direction, sounding alternately like Jack White and the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano. Too bad the uptempo, punky song doesn’t work as well musically. It’s filled with random sounds and randomly recurring riffs over a simple, boring drumbeat that wears out its welcome early on. “Alone”, the album’s penultimate song, fares much better. Visger does his best impression of Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington, delivering his lyrics in a high-pitched yelp. It’s bracing and effective, and the song’s energy works much better than on “Shiny”. “Safe for the Time Being” closes out the disc on a low-key note similar to how it began. It also brushes up against the five-minute mark, but is more engaging than “Downpour”.
Mason Proper is at their best when the band’s music complements Jonathan Visger’s melancholy lyrics. Visger is a compelling singer, and the band seems to know it. Most of Olly Oxen Free exploits this relationship to great effect. Visger and Brian Konicek’s guitar lines intertwine with Thomson’s keyboard work to create interesting soundscapes, while drummer Garrett Jones shines on several songs with his creative beats. Although the album has a couple of minor downturns, it’s a very strong record overall, with a lot of variety. Yet this song-to-song variety still retains a unified feel, so Olly Oxen Free sounds like a cohesive effort.
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