[15 January 2004]
The two-disc Will Work for Diapers features 15 new songs from Fifteen frontman and political activist Jeff Ott. The album also contains re-workings of Fifteen songs and tracks from Epythesial Union, an earlier Ott record. Ott performs each song with just vocals and acoustic guitar. His guitar work shines at moments, but generally it only functions as a vehicle for the songs. Likewise, Ott’s voice gets the job done, but Ott doesn’t have the variety or strength of voice to carry a double album, and the songs can start to blur together. Still, Will Work for Diapers contains quite a few memorable and moving pieces.
The anti-War on Terror track “911 Is Still a Joke” provides the album’s highest point. Ott complicates the situations he discusses, smoothly taking his monologue through unpredictable points. He starts with the events of 9/11 and moves through a discussion of the oppression of women in the U.S., colonialism, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and child abuse, all while weaving in the tragedy at the World Trade Center. Such breadth in a single song could create jarring transitions, but Ott moves gracefully from one to the next while gradually developing his claim about U.S. patriarchy and imperialism. I’d love to quote many of Ott’s acerbic lyrics for you, but I’ll stick to a quick example: “The War on Terrorism is based on the premise that you’re stupid enough to be had”. Ott’s bouncing vitriol builds a stronger anti-war case than most well-argued op-eds.
Ott uses lyrical misdirection to great effect on “Victory is Mine”, which tells the story of a child growing up to overcome his abusive mother. After revealing the treatment he received as a child, the narrator explains how he used to be so small compared to his towering mother. Now he threatens, “I’m bigger than you now, so you better stay the fuck away”. Just when it seems the pattern of violence remains, Ott begins repeating the phrase “I’m bigger than you now”, interspersing a series of empowering statements that includes “Cuz I don’t hit my kids”. The repetition works surprisingly well as an anthemic moment.
On many other tracks, though, this need for repetition undoes Ott’s lyricism. At the simplest level, Ott has a habit of singing the same line twice in a row. This technique could be effective, but his constant employment renders his songs too predictable and these moments become a tedious stretch to be passed. Ott could also benefit from leaving whole chunks of songs on the studio floor. “Heroin”, an anti-drug song, represents the most glaring example of Ott’s inability to end a song. Over the course of 12 minutes, the piece tells of several friends who overdosed on heroin. Piling up deaths for us doesn’t help Ott’s case; it only bores the listener (who probably got the point the first time). Ott’s simplistic handling of the subject is also revealed in his references to the Velvet Undergound’s “Heroin”, which has been held as both praising and condemning of the drug. “Heroin” is a complex piece, and Ott does his own work disservice by oversimplifying his content.
Ott tends to oversimplify the subjects he covers on Will Work for Diapers. Occasionally his songs devolve (or never rise above) basic black-and-white screeds that boil down to arguments the quality of “sexism is bad” or “feminism is bad”. This problem’s exacerbated by the aforementioned length of some of the tracks, such as “White Pride”. If a polemic diatribe is dull, then a long polemic diatribe isn’t going to be more interesting. What’s so frustrating is that Ott shows us his great songwriting talent throughout the album—it’s just that he shows us too much.
Of course, for all my complaints about the length of Ott’s songs, the shortest track on the two discs is also the worst. “Caffiend” contains only two lines (about “better living through chemistry”) that are repeated four times. It’s a novelty song that’s beneath the rest of Ott’s work. I applaud the attempt, though, because two of the better tracks on the disc show Ott using his sense of humor. “Will Work for Diapers” is sung through a smirk. The music is played in an old-timey porch-sittin’ style that could make you think John Denver’s playing some happy roots music. Ott sings, though, about the frustration of working in order to pay a “greedy landlord bastard”. The turns of phrase are clever, and would be comedic if not stemming from sadness. “This Song Title Available for Lease” also contains humorous moments, such as the old soda commercial being parodied as “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and rot out everyone’s teeth”. Ott remains bitter, but his message is more effective for the wit.
Long story short (to take my own advice for once in this review), Will Work for Diapers is a good album, but there’s just too much here that needs to be cut. Had Ott picked out his 16 or 17 best songs, and chopped them each down a bit, he could have had one really compelling disc. I’d still have to call this record a success, but it’s hard to watch someone come so close and not quite make that great album. The important thing to Ott, I imagine, is that he get his message across, and he does that—at least to those of us who make it through all 28 tracks. Many of the songs are powerful when taken on their own, but they just don’t hold up in this grouping.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ottjeff-willwork/