[16 August 2005]
If Mark Browning, or any of the members of the Vancouver-based Ox had actually experienced the Dust Bowl, maybe their music wouldn’t be so light-weight and affected. Maybe people would believe in their Revival, and maybe there would be a reason to care. These words are probably too harsh for an album that really only has one flaw, but unfortunately the flaw is that almost all of Dust Bowl Revival—a sprawling 52-minute, 12-song essay in lameness—is utterly uninteresting. The songs aren’t necessarily bad or poorly constructed, and some of them are actually decent, but the album on the whole lacks the gravitas it feigns, and therefore fails to attract anything beyond a casual, disinterested listen.
Browning’s vocals are for the most part unobtrusive, even if his predictably vulnerable tenor begs us to appreciate his self-depreciating introspectiveness as different from that of the thousands of other predictably vulnerable tenors out there. When he strays from his own sound, however, disaster is just around the corner.
“Trans-Am”, the album’s first song, might as well be a Counting Crows song—mainly because of Browning’s voice, but also because Ox uses a similar set-up: acoustic guitars, fuzzy country electric guitars, bare drums and bass. Stealing, copying, borrowing, whatever you chose to call it, is completely acceptable—but why would anyone steal anything from the Counting Crows?
On the subject of theft, “Stolen Car” sounds awfully like Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”—so much so that the band must be openly referring to it. Browning sounds almost exactly like Young, pushing his own tenor higher. A piano plays sparsely-sounded block chords, an acoustic guitar eventually fills out the sound, and the only thing to do is wait for Browning to sing the words “look at mother nature on the run in the nineteen seventies”. He (thankfully) doesn’t, but does come close, substituting himself for Mother Nature, and singing instead, “in a Camaro riding shotgun like it was 1979”.
The last forty-five seconds of this song are probably the best on the album. Out of nowhere, the whole band picks up and for a brief moment, perhaps because the last 12 minutes have been so predictable and slow, they create surprise and excitement. This only works, however, for as long as we ignore the abhorrent lyrics: “Rockin’ and a rollin’ breakin’ down hard, / I got soul, if you got the balls, / Girl we can go far, in a stolen car.”
Apparently, Ox really enjoyed that song and its chord progression, since they wrote new words for it and created “Stolen Bike”, which comes a few songs later. Maybe Kanye West, Jay-Z, or the Beatles are allowed to refer to other songs they wrote, and preferably songs from prior albums, but Ox has not earned that right. It is appalling that they either expect the audience to not notice that “Stolen Bike” is the same as “Stolen Car”—just sped up—or worse but more probable, that they do expect the audience to notice, and to find it terribly clever or interesting. That said, with its robust drum beat and its foot-tapping chorus, the song is easier to digest than “Stolen Car”, so maybe the solution would have been to get rid of the first song.
Ironically, one of the better songs of the album is completely derivative and has no place on the album. With a bobbing piano and bright chords, “Blue Morning” sounds like the Beatles’ “Getting Better” with an added fiddle part. Nevertheless in the dead center of a dreary collection of songs, the change of pace is much appreciated, no matter how out of place. It’s major / minor shift in the bridge shows hints of intelligent song-writing, and Browning doesn’t attempt to make his voice sound like anything other than his own voice. It is a little insulting, however, that after ripping off the Beatles they rip off the fiddle outro of the Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” in a way that again seems as though they think it’s really clever.
In “Weaving”, stripped of all means to sound like someone else and avoiding the affected lyrics about stolen Camaros and Los Angeles street names, Browning finally sounds sincere. His finger-picked guitar actually weaves a melody in a way that is subtle and appropriate. He wonders if a distant lover is weaving, and if she will be sleeping alone tonight. It’s strength also lies in its brevity: the song only has two verses and no chorus, and is finished before Browning can mess anything up.
In a similar vein, “North Country Girl” also pushes away from the light fare of the rest of the album. Perhaps it shares its title with Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”, in an attempt to appropriate the Dust Bowl music which Dylan, unlike Ox, was able to “revive” without having lived it. Regardless, in a wet sound environment, drums brush slowly and painfully behind an equally pained electric guitar. The song begins the way the album should have begun:
“The cupboards are bare, /
There’s blood on the wall, /
There’s lead in the water, /
If there’s water at all.”
Browning actually manages to be clever with lines like “The rent seems like murder, the landlord needs a killing”, making it excusable that he thinks “killing” rhymes with “chicken”.
The songs that hold their own do so due to their sincerity, not their originality or talent. No one wants to listen to half-hearted rip-offs of Wilco and Neil Young when they can listen to the real things, but if you’re not very good at what you do, and you need to rip someone off, at least be sincere about it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ox-dustbowl/