Big surprise: Oneida has made another great album.
Eight full-length albums into its career, Oneida continues to shift toward the softer, more folk-influenced sound of The Wedding, while slipping in a couple of transcendently aggressive, head-banging kraut-rock stomps (“Up With People”, to a lesser extent “The Adversary”) for long-time fans. Yet even the softest tunes are shot through with discordant accents, distorted drones and complex rhythms—while the most driving ones are topped with delicate, melodic vocals. As you listen repeatedly, going from general impression (whoa, it’s softer), to more specific observation (but there’s that amazing tense keyboard line buried underneath), you may find yourself falling in love with specific sounds that are not immediately apparent: the big crashing chords in “The Adversary”, the funk-syncopated drum line in “Up With People”, the high pounded piano notes in “History’s Great Navigators”, the Middle Eastern woodwind flourish in “Busy Little Bee”. It’s a cliché, but as with all great records, the longer you listen, the more you hear.
As in Oneida’s previous work, the battle is on between precision and total chaos. Like wind-up toys, these cuts move in intricate clockwork patterns, parts interlocking in complex ways, yet always threatening to walk right off the edge. This is just as apparent in the acoustic cuts (“Busy Little Bee”, “History’s Great Navigators”) as in the more electrified ones—although accomplished with different tools. The addition of Phil Manley from the Fucking Champs and TransAm seems to have added space and clarity to Oneida’s approach. There are still always a million things going on, but they’re separate and intelligible, and you can hear the words.
Originally the band had intended to release a triple album called Blame Your Parents this year, but life, particularly the loss of the band’s long-time home studio in Brooklyn, intervened. That may account for the mournful tone that seeps into some of these cuts—the modally hazy “Distress”, the distorted and haunting “Pointing Fingers”, and the almost too pretty “Reckoning”. You can’t imagine Oneida playing these songs live, not unless they decide to do a church show like Devendra Banhart, but they are wonderfully poignant on the record.
The band’s live energy is best captured in the fourth cut, the album-stopping “Up With People”, with its juddering, head-splitting keyboard and complicated rhythms. The cut is dense, with a joyous cacophony of interacting sounds, except when the vocals come in. Then it’s almost naked, with drums cut back to pure simplicity and words in euphoric 1960s soul cadences. It’s the kind of song you want to go on forever, and at 7:49 minutes, it nearly does. “The Adversary” is almost as good, recalling the epic, pounding Oneida last heard in The Wedding‘s spirits. Here the beat is triumphant, exuberantly punctuating long-noted melodies, with keyboard chords signaling changes in mood. Later, “You Can Never Tell” moves with slow, heavy grandeur. Fans of the intricately made “Run Through My Hair” from last year’s record will find similar off-folk exquisiteness in “Busy Little Bee”. And “Thank Your Parents”, which closes the disc out, is a slouching, slanting beast, nailed to earth by its stark drum and simple piano motif, but lifted towards dreamy abstraction by its melancholy vocals.
This is a great band at or near the top of its game. Happy New Year takes all the threads of Oneida’s past work—the Incredible String Band-ish folk songs, the body-shaking hyper-grooves, the mesmeric repetition and the subliminal complexity of interlaced sounds—and brings them together into one cohesive album. Don’t miss this one.
MP3: “Up With People”