(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Recording review - Ought, More Than Any Other Day (2014)

Art punk intensity and choreographed primitivism

Ought was formed in the politically charged crucible of Montreal's "Maple Spring" with genetic material borrowed from David Byrne, David Thomas (Pere Ubu), and Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes). Exposed to the clashing drone of the Velvet Underground and new wave synthpop radiation, their sound solidified into a quirky, experimental space with a driving edge. More Than Any Other Day delivers their psychedelically intense art punk as a wake up call to the world.

They toss out a direct challenge with the jarring notes that open the first track, "Pleasant Heart". Those give way to clashing guitars that fill the bandwidth with contrasting splashes. Like  Byrne, Thomas, and Gano, Tim Beeler's voice defines his band's personality. Unpolished, utterly unguarded, and only loosely controlled, it quavers as he skirts the edge of melody. The initial tension remains constant as the piece evolves, and the uneasiness leaves the groove completely unsettled. The angular guitars and tripping rhythm get more involved, but the nervous vocals offer a new focal point. Eventually, the dense layering picks up enough complexity that there no hope of balance. Suddenly a chasm opens up, leaving a small void of breakdown before the linked loops are triggered all over again. It feels like a tribal rite crossed with some flavor of primal therapy as Beeler locks into repetition, "Say what and how we are." The song then staggers to a halt, leaving a reedy collection of droning keyboards, arrhythmic pings, and lazy bass tones that provide a chaotic interlude. This free jazz floating barely holds together as music and, glancing at the remaining time for the track, it's hard to guess where it might lead. Ought surprises us by bringing back the looping, rhythmic jumble from earlier, but now it's even more insistent. The chanting, "Say what and how we are," returns and is finally allowed to bring the song to a conclusion.

After that sprawling six minutes of overload, the hesitant beginning of "Today, More Than Any Other Day" feels like a respite, a gift from the band. This song is what first attracted me to this album, and it's even stronger in context. The random, detuned notes that melt and fall from the guitar provide an oasis of calm after the chaotic thrash of "Pleasant Heart". When the drag beat and diffident bass come in, they impose a loose and disjointed order that slowly coalesces into a moody, twanged groove, where the bass notes define the structure. The tempo slowly increases and Beeler dreamily repeats, "We're sinking deeper, we feel like..." The song begins to accelerate, though, and Beeler's repetition becomes unhinged as the guitar strum flails like Velvet Underground's "European Son". The song is halfway through, rest time is over, and the track finally finds its raison d'ĂȘtre as a manic affirmation. The flow from the initial amorphous noodling to the rapid-fire, slightly deranged title sloganeering is incredibly engaging. The track has the patience to grant ample time to the free form start, but then it carries out the culmination of its vision with a beautiful economy. Of course, the increasingly frantic pace can only lead to breakdown and the band eventually delivers on this as the song cartwheels to a stop.

The rest of the tracks on More Than Any Other Day go on to expand on these opening tunes, from the Television new wave chop of "The Weather Song" to the tamped down Talking Heads anxiety of "Around Again". The music always manages find the fulcrum point between stream of consciousness primitivism and neat choreography, while the lyrics often come from somewhere out in left field, whether it's the stark Zen koan anchoring  "Around Again" ("Why is it you can't stand in the sun, but you could stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?") or the frustrated confusion of "Gemini" ("I retain the right to have an end in sight/ I retain the right to be absolutely mystified"). The album holds together though, because they transcend their artful influences and find their own perspective. Plenty of other bands in their position fall prey to the temptations of distraction, nihilism, and stilted experimentalism, but Ought remains grounded and connected even as they deliver the unexpected.

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