Music

OK Go: Hungry Ghosts

OK Go successfully dips a toe into synth-rock without forgetting their power-pop roots, yet they still manage to include a small handful of outright clunkers.


OK Go

Hungry Ghosts

Label: Paracadute / BMG
US Release Date: 2014-10-14
UK Release Date: 2014-10-14
Amazon
iTunes

It's been almost five years since OK Go put out a full album, but thanks to their skill at making internet-friendly viral music videos, it doesn't seem nearly that long. 2010's Of the Blue Colour of the Sky found the band pumping out videos and keeping themselves in the public consciousness for a full two years, culminating in the technically impressive video / 2012 Super Bowl ad "Needing / Getting". The band was back at it in June of 2014 with a new EP anchored by the optical illusion-oriented video for "Writing's on the Wall."

The release of that video prompted PopMatters' Evan Sawdey to ask "Why do OK Go's videos seem so much more creative than their music?" It is a legitimate question for those of us who remember the band's 2002 self-titled debut album as one of the 21st century's power-pop peaks. That piece got the attention of the band, and singer Damian Kulash followed up with Sawdey in a lengthy interview about the band's legacy and current philosophy.

By the time you read this, OK Go will likely have released a creative and entertaining new video to coincide with the official release of Hungry Ghosts, which will no doubt rack up several million views by the end of October. But we're here to examine the music on the album. For as much as Of the Colour of the Blue Sky was a landmark for the band, allowing them to assert their independence from their corporate record label and proving that they could create viral videos on a regular basis, the album itself was a mess. The band experimented with Prince-style funk, psychedelic pop, and beat-based songwriting (occasionally subsuming their ear for melodic hooks in the process), and the results were hit and miss at best. Hungry Ghosts, to its credit, is a much more focused album.

Instead of trying to do four or five different things at once, this time out OK Go has decided to concentrate on synth-rock while including a couple of detours into disco and occasionally hearkening back to their original power-pop sound. While keyboards have been a part of OK Go's sound from the start, it's a bit surprising to hear Tim Nordwind completely forgo his bass guitar on the majority of these songs. But that turns out to be a minor issue overall on the album, because as long as the band underpins their instrumentation with strong melodic ideas, their songs work.

Opener "Upside Down and Inside Out" is a rocker where the chorus is cranked to the maximum on everything. It has huge guitars and drums and synth burbles fluttering everywhere, complete with stuttering distortion on the vocals on the back half of the track. And yet the only time the song actually sounds better than "okay" are the two contrast sections where the volume drops down and most of the instruments drop out to focus on Kulash's singing with just a simple synth accompaniment. Also in the "big dumb rocker" category is "Turn Up the Radio", which has a stupid pop song chorus ("Turn up the radio / Turn out the lights") that recalls ‘80s hair metal one-hit wonder Autograph. But like "Upside Down", the parts of the song that work best are the quieter verses where Kulash is singing actual lyrics accompanied by Nordwind's rolling, catchy synth bass. Although this track also has a rhythmically exciting bridge going for it that doesn't sound like anything else in the song.

When the band opts for slower and quieter as a song template, they often sacrifice the huge, hook-filled chorus along the way. But that isn't necessarily a detriment. "Another Set of Issues" relies on Kulash's strong falsetto singing and a sparse arrangement with simple drums, growling synth bass, and occasional chimes. The refrain gets a little louder but doesn't demolish the feel of the song. The slinky "Obsession" surprisingly manages to nail its scuzzy, creepy tone with an array of fuzzed-out, distorted guitar and synth tones, plus a steady kick drum beat and a hint of Latin percussion. Kulash's near-whispered vocals are an effective left turn for him that pays off handsomely.

Sometimes this slower, synthier strategy doesn't work. "I'm Not Through" is a funk-style track sprinkled with ‘80s video game synths that's hamstrung by a limp falsetto chorus and forgettable verses. Disco strings and a heavily distorted disco-era guitar solo don't really do anything to help the song, because it's missing the melodic engine that makes OK Go's best tracks work. Similarly weak is "Bright as Your Eyes", which starts with an interesting, ‘50s-era oscillating synth drone but quickly slides into a cloying chorus that drenches Kulash in cheeesy strings. Of course, the failure of this pair of songs completely recontextualizes the disco pastiche of "I Won't Let You Down." That song's appearance on the Upside Out EP sounded like an effective but unremarkable ‘70s flashback. But here on Hungry Ghosts it follows the aforementioned songs and sounds like a highly energized breath of fresh air. By going all in on the disco sound instead of trying to marry it to synth-rock, "I Won't Let You Down" works perfectly as a change of pace. It's also great to hear Nordwind break out his actual bass guitar for the song.

The other tracks from Upside Out also sound very good in the context of the full album. "The Writing's on the Wall" appears second here, and it sounds like a restrained, nuanced pop song following on the heels of the more is more approach of "Upside Down & Inside Out". The epic U2-isms of "The One Moment", with its open piano chords and loud-soft-loud construction, follow "I Won't Let You Down", and the song is well-placed as the album's climax.

But if "The One Moment" is the climax, that leaves a few songs of denouement left on Hungry Ghosts. "If I Had a Mountain" is quiet and simple, with Kulash declaring his love for someone in comparison to things like mountains and oceans. The band lets Kulash's voice sell the song, and he pulls it off with a small but impassioned performance. "The Great Fire" is probably the band's most full-on synth track, with grimy bass, laser beam sounds, and high organs all living together. Too bad the band pays so much attention to the arrangement of different synth sounds that it neglects to offer a compelling melodic idea. "Lullaby" closes the album out with a perfectly fine acoustic guitar-based lullaby. It's not particularly memorable or interesting, but it's nice.

Hungry Ghosts feels like two steps forward for OK Go and one step back. There is a lot of strong material on the album, and much of it works well in the synth-rock context. A half-dozen songs on this record could conceivably be singles and keep the band going with more great videos for another couple of years. But the presence of a handful of tracks that just seem ill-conceived makes you wonder if there's anyone at the band-owned label Paracadute who can step up and offer suggestions to OK Go when a musical idea doesn't seem to be working. When you routinely take four to five years between releases, having three or four outright clunkers on your album seems like too many.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.