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Music

Oneida: Secret Wars

Andrew Simmons

Oneida

Secret Wars

Label: Jagjaguwar
US Release Date: 2004-01-20
UK Release Date: 2004-01-26
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When I was a junior in college, I started doing a weekly show on the school's student-run radio station. At first, I had deliciously high hopes for what I might accomplish in the studio, imagining that, as I spun my favorite rock tracks, hundreds of music fans across campus might press ears against the tinny speakers of their clock radios, dance, and make wild, marvelous love. Of course, after learning that, as a fledgling disc jockey with no major administrative connections, I would be called upon to ply my trade between the ungodly hours of four and six in the morning, my initial enthusiasm began to wilt. Buoyed by booze and coffee, I'd stay up with a heavy heart and trudge to the station long after my friends had turned in for the night. Each show was be two hours long, and while I usually meant to give it my all, my beery exhaustion invariably joined forces with my natural laziness to short-circuit even my most valiant intentions.

Generally, I'd put together what I considered a taut, seamless show for the first hour, carefully arranging tunes in blocks ordered by mood, genre, or some other seemingly stylish quantifier. One morning, I had a set of songs with lyrics referencing the color red. Another time, I only played songs by bands from my hometown. I slapped together these pedestrian constructions, not to intrigue an imaginary listener, but to stay awake and relatively alert in the dangerously warm studio. After the first hour or so, the day's self-imposed constraints would inevitably melt and I'd try to coast through the remaining portion of the show with as little effort as possible. The less time I could spend switching albums and jawing into the microphone would yield more time for extended bathroom breaks, illicit classroom explorations, and dozing on the insect-ridden couch in the corner. I quickly became a big fan of very long songs. So long as I played nothing under ten minutes long, I could polish off the last 60 minutes of my show with only a few idle clicks of the remote control. During this durable phase, Built to Spill's cover of "Cortez the Killer" was a huge favorite. I also became quite partial to live Quicksilver Messenger Service and Mogwai's positively heroic My Father, My King.

Naturally, this pattern continued even a year later, when my radio show was firmly ensconced in a prime-time slot. At this point, there were probably at least a few dorm room dials tuned in, and I felt compelled to expand my second hour repertoire to assure some semblance of quality control. I asked a fellow sage of the steel wheels for suggestions and he recommended Oneida, a band of which I'd read. The next day, I whipped Anthem of the Moon off the shelf and cued up the longest song (12-minute-plus "Double Lock Your Mind") so I could wander outside for a leisurely afternoon cigarette, buried to the knees in cottony snow. I added the song to my set on subsequent shows but never once heard it in its entirety -- only the very beginning before I'd dash off, and then the end upon my return, before I'd fade out and switch platters. I never even listened to another song off this album. At the time, my friend's description of a big-riff garage band with unhinged avant-garde pretensions sounded appropriate for my needs, but contrary to my personal tastes.

Now, two years later, I'm happy to learn that this band's musical offerings, like those of the other occasionally long-winded acts I grew so fond of, aren't actually tailored just to suit the wayward habits of a morbidly lazy student DJ. The songs on Secret Wars are not only, for the most part, agreeably concise, they are also fastidiously composed. Oneida presides over an unlikely marriage between precision-rock aesthetics and a fat, fuzzy sound with plenty of cleverly frayed edges. Instead of wallowing too comfortably in icy, clinical compulsions, Oneida's thunderous quasi-hooks come off as warm and decidedly weed-friendly. Moreover, at their boiling points, when individual instruments become indiscernible from one another, the repetitive, interlocking grooves can recall the muddy din of obscure '60s classics. Still, more often than not, they're deceptively complex and way too subtly rendered to pass for anything more than evocative nods to a primitive sub-genre with such narrow parameters.

I'm a big fan of the singing, too. A less thoughtful band would want to match those elephantine jams to over-the-top howling, but, thankfully, Oneida has enough good taste to keep the vocals superbly simple with sedate, catchy melodies, wispy thin and enunciated to balance, and even accentuate the headiest, speaker-shaking drones. For evidence, look no further than the riveting "Caesar's Column" and "$50 Tea", which also features some truly sizzling guitar licks.

Ironically, when I was still doing my radio show, despite having to spend two hours a week in a small booth with only closets stacked high with tantalizing old records and brand-new compact discs for company, I had a surprisingly meek thirst for unearthing fresh music. Instead of conceiving my entire radio show as a vehicle for showcasing my most recent musical discoveries, I used the first hour to air the low-concept cycles of exceedingly familiar songs usually cribbed from my own collection, and then the second to permit some wee hour wanderlust. It's funny how a band I once employed as hip filler to keep that second hour noodle-fest more current can now make such an impression on me under such different circumstances.

That being said, unless someone wears an Oneida pin to a gig on Letterman, Secret Wars probably won't launch the plucky rockers high to the top of Brooklyn's vaunted echelon of hyphenated punk. Nonetheless, if they continue on this promising path, they may yet get tapped for a spell at the head of the table. Furthermore, I don't know how Secret Wars measures up to Oneida's other albums because I never took the time to listen to them when they were all arranged so tidily before me. I suppose I'll have to backtrack to find out, but for now it's pleasant enough to take an unschooled stand for this one.

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