While the name OK Go likely inspires visions of the band’s many viral music videos, the quartet didn’t start quite so visually focused. The germ of OK Go formed when lead vocalist Damien Kulash and bassist Tim Nordwind met at the Interlochen Arts Camp in northern Michigan when they were preteens. The two kept in touch for years despite living in different areas of the country. After graduating from Brown University, Kulash joined Nordwind in Chicago. At that point, Nordwind already had a band with drummer Dan Konopka and guitarist Andy Duncan, but with Kulash in the mix, they renamed themselves OK Go near the end of the 1990s.
OK Go quickly inspired buzz in the Midwest, mainly based on live performances and relentless self-promotion. Gigs opening for acts from across the indie spectrum, including Elliott Smith, the Promise Ring, and Sloan, bolstered their reputation. I remember reading an article hyping them up in a local Detroit newspaper around this time. A few months later, I saw the band open for They Might Be Giants in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They closed their set by covering TMBG’s “Kiss Me, Son of God”, cheekily explaining that they were playing the song because the headliners refused despite OK Go repeatedly requesting it.
Riding the wave of buzz, OK Go received contract offers from several major record companies and ended up signing with Capitol. Their self-titled debut released on 17 September 2002 to a decidedly mixed critical reception. Right in the middle of their indier-than-thou phase, Pitchfork didn’t get around to reviewing it for six months and destroyed it with a scathing 2.6/10. Rolling Stone gave it a 2/5 and a single-paragraph write-up. Entertainment Weekly also devoted a single paragraph to the record but gave it a much more complimentary B+. Our detailed review at PopMatters praises the album quite a bit, although the piece predates our numbering system.
Commercially, OK Go was not a hit, but it found enough of an audience to keep the band with Capitol for another album. The first single, “Get Over It”, got the group some exposure, namely with sports video gamers. Electronic Arts’ Madden series, always a top seller, featured the song heavily in Madden NFL 2003. The video also got a modicum of airplay on MTV, which was still enough of a force at that time to be worth mentioning. The clip, from director Francis Lawrence, is energetic and fun, with lots of shots of Kulash yelling the lyrics at the top of his lungs. It’s very much of its time, though, and doesn’t preview the creative visuals that would make the band a household name beginning with the videos from their second album, Oh No.
Revisiting OK Go for its 20th anniversary, the album mostly holds up as an underappreciated power-pop gem. “Get Over It” opens with a rhythm that is literally a single drum hit away from just being the “We Will Rock You” beat. The slashing guitars, nearly shouted vocals, and overdriven keyboard riff announce that OK Go will be leaning heavily on the “power” side of the power-pop equation. The song is boisterous and swaggering, with a shouted “Hey!” leading off the chorus that seems tailor-made for a crowd to yell along.
OK Go keep the energy up for the following two tracks as well. The shuffling “Don’t Ask Me” is playful and has a bounce, with a couple of layers of organ and synths replacing the guitar crunch of “Get Over It.” “You’re So Damn Hot” comes right out of the Cheap Trick/The Cars playbook, and musically it’s a blast. Lyrically, though, Kulash spends the song excoriating his girlfriend (Maybe? It’s not clear if they’re dating or he’s projecting a relationship that doesn’t exist) for spending time with other men. He forgives her all of her transgressions, though, because she’s “So damn hot.” That’s not a great look in 2022.
Kulash, it turns out, isn’t a stellar lyricist. He lacks the urban-suburban specificity of his genre contemporaries in Fountains of Wayne or the intriguing obliqueness of AC Newman‘s lyrics for the New Pornographers. That OK Go is successful is primarily due to the effervescent songwriting. When the lyrics really work, it’s often because Kulash has matched the mood of the music rather than come up with something interesting to say. Fortunately for the band, the bulk of the album matches words and mood effectively.
Beginning with “What to Do”, OK Go explore other textures beyond the walls of guitar and synths they’ve been using thus far. “1,000 Miles an Hour” is a laid-back fantasy of taking a road trip to rescue a failing relationship. The mood is aspirational and melancholy, with gently strummed guitars and simple organ chords. “Hello, My Treacherous Friends” is unsettling and borderline creepy, with a sinuous bassline and an oddly textured sliding glockenspiel riff. The chorus opens up a bit when Kulash sings, “Hello, my treacherous friends / Thank you for joining me here tonight.” There’s also a lyrical thread about Kulash’s “newborn arachnid kids”, which is delightfully weird.
“Return” may be the exception to OK Go’s so-so lyrics. It opens with big, slowly chugging guitars before giving way to gently strummed acoustics in the verses. Here, Kulash reminisces about an acquaintance that died a long time ago. “Now it’s years / Since your body went flat / And even memories of that / Are all thick and dull.” After attempting to brush off these feelings, he admits, “The worst of it now / I can’t remember your face.”
The choruses have all the big guitars, and vocally it’s a thick layer of harmonies belting out the single stretched-out word, “Return”. The second verse recounts how the memories were potent at first but concludes, “Antiseptic and tired / I can’t remember your face.” A noisy section follows, with keyboard and guitar solos and background harmonized “Oooh’s”. Next is the coda, where Kulash repeatedly howls, “You were supposed to grow old!” “Return” could be emotionally devastating, but OK Go cloak the sentiment under the layers of guitars, synths, and vocals, making it easy to sing along and still miss the point.
“There’s a Fire” may be the most exciting song on the album from an arrangement standpoint. It’s a funky track that previews the band’s future interest in dance rock. Konopka’s drums and Nordwind’s bass set up a cool, skittering groove, but then Duncan’s guitar comes in somewhere in the neighborhood of a beat and a half past what you think is the downbeat. When Kulash enters, his vocals don’t match either of the established patterns, making the whole track extremely slippery when it comes to finding the main beat. This unbalanced feeling continues through the second verse as a pair of different keyboard lines appears. It isn’t until the pre-chorus that OK Go coalesce into a single rhythm pattern. They drift right back to the funky feel, though, and the entire song feels intentionally sparse compared to the rest of the record. Kulash’s lyrics about mixing up his words and emotions go well with the unsettled feeling of the music.
Nordwind gets a shot at lead vocals on the silly “C-C-C-Cinnamon Lips”. Many viewers of OK Go’s early viral videos probably mistook him for their lead singer. He was the one lip-syncing the lyrics in “A Million Ways” and “Here It Goes Again” because he was the member most able to handle both the choreography and the lyrics. This track is driven by a guitar line that sounds like it’s ping-ponging between high and low, with an accompanying organ line that comes just short of being circus-like. The lyrics cover familiar territory, as Nordwind alternately marvels at how attractive his love interest is but also discusses feeling underappreciated. There are some great moments of falsetto singing, though, and it doesn’t quite sound like any other song on the debut record.
OK Go closes with its shortest but punchiest track. “Bye Bye Baby” was apparently a song Kulash had written and played with bands back when he was at Brown University. In the hands of OK Go, it essentially becomes two minutes and 17 seconds of power pop perfection. It begins with a simple, slashing guitar riff, with Kulash joining in and belting out, “Bye bye baby / Cybil says as she walks out the door.” On the words “out the door”, a layer of vocal harmony comes in, while drums and bass join immediately after. The melodic guitars and harmonies drop in and out over the next two minutes. There’s just enough time for a quiet bridge, which sets up the return to the big sound even better. “Bye Bye Baby” finishes out OK Go on a wonderful note of finality.
After 20 years, OK Go doesn’t have quite the punch for me that it did when it first came out, but it’s close. Working in its favor is that OK Go never again made an album as complete as this one. All of their records have great individual songs, and the group has a knack for picking out their best tracks as singles for videos. OK Go combines a penchant for big hooks and a love for big guitars into a great collection of songs. The crunchy opening and closing sections of the album lean into the power side of the power pop equation, while the middle is an exploration of a lot of different styles. It’s a fun, quality ride from a group that doesn’t get much recognition for its musical prowess.