Despite having a member of the Stipe family in common, there is probably only one other main point of comparison that can be made between Athens, Georgia's Oh-OK, and the more well known (literal) brother band that sprung from the same town. Both began as stripped-down and atmospheric units before stumbling into shiny happy pop sensibilities; although where Michael and R.E.M. found wide popular acclaim, Lynda and Oh-OK lasted shy of 4 years, eventually dissolving in 1984.
Which makes the release of The Complete Recordings a cause for confused celebration. This CD compiles both of the band's EPs -- the Wow mini-album from 1982 and 1983's Furthermore What EP -- with live songs from 1983 and 1984, together with photos and liner notes from Brainy Rock Critics Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell. I was giddy as a schoolboy to discover that these recordings (especially the first EP) were finally being made available digitally, that their odd Pylon-meets-Young Marble Giants sound finally could be pumped from the speakers of cooler jukeboxes. Plus, the live covers of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" (they get down its disco beat without speeding up the song too much) and "Let's Get Together" (from the 1961 Disney film The Parent Trap) are absolutely wonderful. But the juxtaposition of their early songs with their later on the CD is like . . . well, to be completely unfair to both bands, like listening to R.E.M. circa "Stand" right after listening to all of Chronic Town and Murmur.
This comparison is not meant to say one half of Oh-OK's tiny career isn't worth listening to. The four songs on Wow are gloriously empty. They couple Lynda Stipe's bouncy bass and David Pierce's solid drumming with Linda Hopper's (and Lynda Stipe's, for that matter) straightforward vocals. Despite being slight, the music is able to express everything from the joyfully lilting "Lilting" -- one minute of indie-pop bliss about a hairdo -- to the ooky "Playtime", where the bass menaces instead of bubbles, and the drums skitter across the floor like mice scurrying toward holes. The final song on Wow, "Person", adds whistling noises and cartoonish boy-girl harmonies singing, " I like plasma / I consume / Everything I need / Hunter instinct / You'll assume / Organism be". The chorus, "I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I am a person / I speak to you / I am a person / I am a person / And that is enough" is practically zen-like. In the same mood as the music within, the cover of this release originally featured cartoon renditions of the band coupled with a title that's rendered in a crayon scrawl looking strangely like scarred-over cuts on human skin.
The difference between the first four songs and the six that follow, from Furthermore What, isn't something that's evident immediately, since the same bass is there, as are the same harmony vocals. This time around, both sound more accomplished, more daring. What stabs you as being different is the addition of -- gasp -- a guitarist. And it's someone who's got a knack for a poppy jangly hook. (A pre-fame Matthew Sweet, whose addition to the band comes across, after listening to the later songs, like watching an architect playing in a sandbox.) Listening to how full songs like "Guru" and "Such and Such" sound, it's very easy to forget that Oh-OK's earlier songs were actually as sparse as they were.
In a weird way, they expressed a lot more emotion with a lot less instrumentation (they were less anonymous, too, since the song with Sweet don't grab you like their earlier ones do), and at the same time that they became more musically serious, they also got strangely solipsistic; fortunately, their wide-eyed and wondering lyrics undercut these tendencies. "Straight" cleverly incorporates the nursery rhymes "One Two Buckle My Shoe" and "Red Rover"; lyric like "Red Rover Red Rover / Please send her a lover / She needs someone above her / 'Cause her boys are at school" and "Left you hanging from the / Tree, four / Shut the door" imagine a continuity between the games of childhood and adulthood.
"Choukoutien" is probably the most haunting song ever written about a horse. "Elaine's Song" is a sea chanty sung by the wind featuring some ghostly sound effects, which are either cats or people drowning. And "Giddy Up" envisions the fun getting lost in a landscape depicting pictures of cowboys in the Wild West.
Which brings us to the first four well-recorded live songs, most of which don't appear on either of the EPs. "Is It?" asks the Girl Power question, "Is it / Getting so much better / Me and my boyfriend / Are back together". "Round Is Funny" is a funny song, sung in the round, with doo-wop vocals courtesy of Pierce. The nine songs on the remainder of the CD are pretty muddily documented (and, frankly, with the exception of a version of "Lilting" that extends the song's length to a whopping two minutes, have the same mature sheen of their second EP), but they convey the jumping-in-the-air fun that both Oh-OK and the audience sound like they're having.
There are some amazing treasures on this collection waiting for any listener. But since it strives for completeness, you do have to wade through songs that ultimately sound less vital than those first fab four.