If music is the cultural meal of the masses, then Chicago’s OK Go would be best found on the desert menu, or at the most extreme, confined to candy stores. Two years ago, the band released their self-titled debut to a slew of better-than-average ratings from critics who went out of their way to point out that while the album was the product of a group of real rock and rollers, the songs weren’t exactly social-conscious statements.
This may be the reason why much of OK Go’s second album, Oh No, is such a different animal. Gone (for the most part) are the overt 1980s pop-rock influences which were undeniably evident on their debut. The crux of their sound still lies somewhere on the map between the crunchy pop melodies of Weezer and The Cars (with possibly a view of Hanson from above as the crow flies), but their direction has obviously changed this time around.
It’s very telling that around the time of their first album, John Flansburgh (one half of They Might Be Giants) was so taken with the band that he became their manager. One could say the aspects Flansburgh might have been drawn to were sanded down for Oh No, which, while still a witty rock and roll record, has just much to do with mainstream pop-rock as it does indie pop. With its simultaneously brooding and exuberant productions, this may be one of the first albums that could be at home stored next to either Sloan and Jet as Spoon or the better material of Guided By Voices.
Oh No begins with “Invincible”, a foot-stomper and easily one of the album’s best cuts. “Invincible” sets a blueprint for the rest of the songs: catchy guitar riffs, anthemic lyrics and a driving beat. But a blueprint can be a dangerous weapon for a band, especially since the next two songs (“Do What You Want” and “Here it Goes Again”) follow it precisely.
Thankfully, the rest of the album remains staunchly varied. “Television, Television” is a garagey piece of speed rock, easily the fastest track on the record. “A Good Idea at the Time” and “Let It Rain” delve into the more alternative sides of the band (ala the recent Gimme Fiction by Spoon), while “No Sign of Life” carries a distinctly bluesy feel.
But perhaps the most disorienting is “Oh Lately It’s So Quiet”, found midway through the album. Just when it seems that those mid-’80s influences are nowhere to be found, “So Quiet” turns up, eerily recalling Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face”. Whether or not this is a good thing is left to the listener to decide.
Oh No wraps up with the brooding “Maybe, This Time” and “The House Always Wins”, a smart aleck song that wraps sunny pop music with depressing-as-hell lyrics. It’s a dizzying, yet interesting one-two punch of a way to end an album, because neither would have been the expected offspring of a band once thought to be the candy merchants of the Billboard charts.
“House”, “Maybe, This Time” and much of the rest of the album could have been whopping disasters had the band’s previous image remained. What’s found, however, contradicts the band’s pre-history. Oh No is by no means a perfect album, but its growth — the songs are more mature, the songwriting has improved and the album is enjoyable without digging too deep for artistic statements. Like its predessor, it may not smash the world into a thousand pieces, but it’s enough of reason to give the skeptics pause.
And, of course, fans will more than likely say yes to Oh No.