Take some smart guys a la Weezer, mix in a little bit of The Cars, add in some organic elements of J. Geils Band, stir in a dash of Cheap Trick flavor and let it all cook with tunes that are fun to hear, and you’ve got the dish on up-and-coming rockers OK GO. On their self-titled debut, these four guys out of Chicago seek to make music that is fun without being overly silly, intelligent without being too self-important. Will this new music set the world on its ear? No, but that’s beside the point. This is radio-ready enjoyable music—mission accomplished.
OK GO exude youthful exuberance tempered with rock smarts, unpretentiously nice melodic tunes that seem a musical cut above the garage-rock revival flavors of the month (you know who they are). One hopes the world’s music-purchasing youth sit up and take some notice. OK GO does stand a chance; being on a major label and touring around opening for the likes of Elliott Smith, The Vines, Phantom Planet, They Might Be Giants, Promise Ring and Superdrag might help spread the good word.
Damian Kulash, Jr., the lead singer and guitarist who wrote or collaborated on all of the songs, helms the quartet. This former semiotics major at Brown University actually met bass player Tim Nordwind at summer camp. The two pre-teens formed a band called The Greased Ferrets. Later in high school they met Andy Duncan, who plays keyboards and guitar, while drummer Dan Knopka was a college acquaintance. In 1999, the foursome became one as OK GO.
The CD opens with the infectious, and therefore obvious single “Get Over It”, a great bit of melodic celebration with Billy Squier- or Queen-type handclaps and J. Geils Band “Centerfold”-era organ. The accompanying video directed by Francis Lawrence (Garbage, Nelly Furtado, Incubus) captures a bit of the self-deprecating humor of Kulash and company (I particularly like the table tennis interlude that breaks up the guitar lead in mid-song).
Lyrically, this is a simple yet scathing censure of our societal habit of playing the blame game: “It’s such a drag, what a chore / Oh, your wounds are full of salt / Everything’s a stress and what’s more / Well it’s all somebody’s fault.”
“Don’t Ask Me” is another upbeat bit of pop that clocks in at under three minutes, featuring octave-apart double vocals on the verses and some nice harmonies on the chorus, a laying out of the social rules for future meetings, the first of which remains “Don’t ask me where I’ve been”.
Kulash can take those handclaps and have them intro all manner of catchiness. “You’re So Damn Hot” (with organ hook here that’s more Cars than J.Geils Band) tells the unrequited object of desire how her clothes give away her real motives (“you don’t love me at all; so who’s this other guy you’ve got, etc.”).
“What to Do” takes on one who has opted for political action and cause-related activity and exposes her righteous emptiness: “e.g., compassion’s just a nicer way of looking down your nose.” The chorus is a harmony-filled indictment: “What to do? / Sweetheart, you’ll find / Mediocre people do exceptional things all the time / Oh, the ruin will do in your talented mind / Could’ve been a genius if you’d had an axe to grind.” Delicious bells serve to highlight the song’s melody and there’s also a great middle lead.
While the music skillfully evokes retro rock in a modern way, Kulash manages to do things with his subtle yet poetic words. “1000 Miles Per Hour” captures the ennui of a protracted relationship and offers up suggestions of flight as easy solution. “Shortly Before the End” asks for a departing song sung at the end of something—a relationship or perhaps even a life.
Such serious material continues on with the elder somber perspective of “Return”, which takes on the fading distant memory of one long ago lost while musically more of a modern anthem rocker. Kulash’s words are spare, well chosen and effective: “For a while, with the vertigo cured / We were alive, we were pure / The world took the shape of all that you were / But years take their toll, and things get bent into shape / Antiseptic and tired, I can’t remember your face.”
Kulash knows words can be difficult. There’s a musical wink to The Cure with his “There’s a Fire”, wherein the communication problem sheds doubt on the urgency of the title message, a la the boy who cried wolf (“I never say quite what I mean / And never mean quite what I say”). “C-C-C-Cinnamon Lips” takes the catchy hand-clapping music toward the new direction of “girl band” (the fine female vocals are not credited here, alas).
“Hello My Treacherous Friends” builds slowly on strong bass, reminding us that we can learn much from our enemies. “Bye Bye Baby” allows the group to put great harmonies on display, adorning the edges of yet another wonderful Kulash tune, as a would-be love walks out the door to pursue Hollywood dreams.
Allegedly, the band recorded what was to have been their first album, then scrapped the whole thing and started over. That first effort was arty and self-conscious, whereas the dozen songs here are anything but—they are well crafted and flow easily. There is drama and range yet in what has made it to disc, and the musical talents are evident on each and every track. These guys know their rock, and come to the scene confident and ready to have fun.
What might at first listen sound to be merely summer radio fare turns out to be a whole lot more with OK GO. Kulash and company can show you a good time, but they also stand up to closer listening over time, with musical nuances and slick production and oft-surprising lyrics. OK GO is an impressive debut from a playful group that leaves one eager for what comes next.
// Notes from the Road
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