[13 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Eric Elbogen, the man behind Say Hi, deserves credit at the very least for making his project sound like a full band on record. It’s all the more impressive considering he records and mixes the Say Hi albums himself in his bedroom. He must have some good equipment in that bedroom, because Oohs & Aahs sounds plenty polished for a home recording, but there’s a personal charm to the hazy finish of this, something just short of studio sleekness that really works in his favor.
The humming guitars and keys that run over these tracks sound layered in dust, which works perfectly for a record as nostalgic as Oohs & Aahs. Elbogen is constantly looking back to halcyon days or past regrets. When he nails it, these songs take on a bittersweet recollection that draws you in and makes you recall your own memories.
Opener “Eloise” is a great piece of idol worship. It tells of a girl on the low end of the radio band that the singer tuned into all the time. She introduced him to the Violent Femmes and she’s the kind of girl that “every boy in town is pretty sure he deserves to marry.” It’s a sweet song, full of innocent pining, and built on an intricate mix of crashing cymbals and tumbling guitar notes, rising up and falling out only to let Elbogen’s aching mumble tell the story.
And while “Eloise” is the biggest track on the record, “Hallie and Henry” is the catchiest by far. It’s a little more straightforward and stripped-down, but it is soaked with urgency. The title characters are fighting an old fight—against small town life—but at odds as to how to escape. The optimistic Hallie wants to try and engage the town—“Let’s make friends with the cool kids just this once,” she offers—but Henry is a curmudgeon who wants to hide away and ignore it all. The verbose rundown on the chorus is not only sickly infectious but stuffed full of Hallie’s frustration. Along with the way Elbogen lofts a high keen into the girl-that-got-away story of “Maurine”, “Hallie and Henry” shows his ability to establish a mood in these songs, and bring it fully to life. The heartache in these songs is real and not without a glimmer of hope or, at least, fond remembrance.
The rest of the album, though, settles into a mid-tempo rut that makes songs run together. “The Stars Just Blink for Us” runs on a too-simple piano base and a melody that is off-kilter just enough to make it sound awkward but not enough for it to be charmingly quirky. “One, Two…One” is bare-bones indie rock that feels like it’s waiting for the next thing to happen, something is missing and that something never shows up. And “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh” takes the album’s nostalgia and runs into a stock character: the cute indie rock girl. She curses and has great legs and buys Built to Spill 7-inches. And Elbogen wants to do her. Probably. It’s hard to tell, since his details of her are distinct, if bland, but his feelings about her are strangely vague.
There are other moments that successfully work against these songs, particularly the organ drone of “Audrey”. But that song doesn’t even get two minutes on the record, while these overly simplified songs start to add up. Maybe opening with the one-two punch of “Eloise” and “Hallie and Henry” sets up the rest of the album to feel mediocre. But it’s probably more that those songs sound like they’re pushing at the walls of Elbogen’s bedroom, trying to burst out into the world. And too much of this other stuff sounds just a touch too insular to really get into. Oohs and Aahs invites us in right off the bat, but once we’re there it spends too much of its time ignoring us, curling into its own sound instead of projecting it out for us to be a part of.