Phonograph: OKNO

Indie Brooklynites stretch to make their own Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The songs can't quite compete, but the record proves that the Wilco Effect continues to produce a vibrant American scene.



US Release: 2009-08-31
UK Release: Import
Label: BNS Sessions

There's a nice song deep on Phonograph's sophomore album, OKNO, that drifts along in a euphonious swirl of ambient-roosty, quiet-noisy, mainstream-indie, organic-electronic, Brit-influenced Americana. The song is called “American Music”, and ain't it the truth. Indie-rock is a head-swimmingly dense scene, but Phonograph is a band out of Brooklyn that helps define what American rock sounds like in 2009, if such a thing is possible.

A few years back, some rock journalists were calling Wilco the “American Radiohead”, and, if Radiohead formed a template for British rock bands for the last decade and a half, then we're now seeing the Wilco Effect on the American scene. Like Wilco, Phonograph incorporates the above-mentioned binary oppositions into a blend of soulful roots songs and avant-garde blippy dissonance, the product of a thick soup of influences that have helped create an album with a broad landscape of rock-and-roll idioms. Call it the Melting Pop. The result on Phonograph's new album, though, is not one of sprawling disunity; Phonograph aren't attempting a variety of genre exercises. Instead, the diversity of elements is evenly spread throughout, showing up in every song, and ultimately creating something of a cohesive statement.

OKNO predictably moves the band further away from the rootsy Neil Young-ish beginnings heard on their well-received 2007 self-titled debut, and they telegraph their intention to stretch out as the new album opens with a live-wire feedback crackle before moving into a dischordant guitar skronk, finally settling on a strumming acoustic guitar, an insistent snare beat, a disorienting robotic keyboard line, and peals of guitar freakouts. The thing is, there's a lovely song (“You/Me”) in there, as well, as Matthew Welsh sings a heartfelt melody that breaks down into a quiet bridge pinked with a wash of steel guitar. Next, the title track rolls back to a '60s folk-pop sound complete with a big, bright chorus and orchestral backdrops. The band brings in Grace Potter to duet with Welsh on “Wellwisher”, a droney anthem that nearly suffocates from studio embellishments, although Potter's vocal performance, finally breaking out of her breathy murmur, saves the song by the end.

Phonograph aren't ready to shed their alt-country label completely; songs like the hazy, somber “Are You Gonna” are twangy enough to keep No Depression readers interested. “Have I Told You” is the most Jeff Tweedy-esque moment here, in terms of melody, vocal delivery, and the noisy guitar chaos during the coda. And there's a banjo clap-along instrumental, "Holy Rollers", but a murky, inscrutable chant develops in there, so these guys are determined to buck convention even when trying to reach back toward traditionalism. There's a relatively dreary drift to much of the album, even when the record sort of rocks, and the whole thing is shellacked with a layer of fuzzy reverb that, along with mostly sad-sack lyrics, gives the album a melancholy feel throughout.

For all of Phonograph's sonic experimentation, the album wouldn't work if the songs weren't there, which they are, but the studio sound-effects do sometimes threaten to detract from the tunes -- obviously, the unpredictable left-field bleeps and squeals might just turn out to be predictable if they're overused, just as it grew wearisome that every other Wilco song would descend into noise-scape cacophony at the end. Phonograph manages to avoid these traps for the most part on OKNO, pushing experimentation just so far, but again they run right up against overkill at times. Still, this is a solid step forward for a band that brings impressive musicianship and no shortage of ideas to an album that sounds, despite their moniker, totally of the moment.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.