Wednesday, July 23, 2014

album review: 'more than any other day' by ought (RETRO REVIEW)

First, a brief history lesson: two years ago in the spring of 2012 the Liberal government of the Canadian province of Quebec aimed to raise university tuition rates approximately 75% from about $2100 per year to just under $3800. To the rest of Canada, this particular act was greeted with a mixed response. On the one hand, speaking as a guy just out of university, it sucks when your university tuition is raised by any amount, as it makes it harder for students to afford an education, which was originally the purpose of the tuition freeze in the first place. On the other hand, Quebec has had the lowest tuition in the country by thousands of dollars for Quebec residents, and their universities were starting to feel the pinch in maintaining or upgrading facilities, so breaking the tuition freeze did make a certain amount of sense. 

But you wouldn't have heard those discussions in Quebec, because throughout the spring of 2012, thousands of students took to the streets in protest, with several riots breaking out that the provincial government promptly overreacted to and the whole thing turned into a gigantic, politically ruinous mess. So why bring it up? Well, from that tumultuous incident came Ought, a Montreal based band blending the artier side of punk music with indie rock that seemed to be directly inspired by that event, along with Richard Hell and especially the Talking Heads. Now I originally planned on reviewing this record when it came out several months ago, but I figured now is as good of a time as ever to delve into the band and continue my foray into Canadian indie rock. So, what did I find?

Well, honestly, not a huge amount. I'll be honest, I've been sitting on writing this review for almost three months now because I wasn't sure if I had anything worthwhile to add to the conversation around an album that is memorable, but not exactly one I find all that interesting or cohesive, especially given its plethora of influences and sounds. I'm not saying the album is bad or even that it doesn't execute its intent, but that said intent just does nothing for me. In other words, More Than Any Other Day by Ought is the sort of record that just might not be for me.

But why is that? Ought does draw from some artists and styles I do like, especially in the yelping, half-drone, half-spoken word delivery of lead vocalist Tim Beeler, that recalls a lot of David Byrne. And while his vocals can occasionally be drowned out more than I'd like, he's got a lot of jittery energy that really does fit the tone of the album. I guess to some extent I still prefer Byrne's vocals, if only because he always sounded in control of his emotions, but Beeler's delivery does work.

And honestly, most of the instrumentation works pretty well too. When the rattling guitars can build to a solid groove, the melody lines are distinctive and anchored by the thrumming simmer of the bass, all set against the washed out keyboards and grimy strings. And yet it's never really noisy or distorted, as all of the melody lines drive forward and create that snarl through pure intersection. Sometimes it gets a little messy like on the opener 'Pleasant Heart' or the closer 'Gemini', but the heavy strums of 'Habit', the upbeat punchiness of 'The Weather Song', and the great groove of 'Around Again' are memorable enough to draw a lot of interest against a mix that always feels a little too clattering and exposed to be ignored.

Now there are reasons why the mix sounds like this, and this comes back to the lyrics and themes - which I honestly didn't find nearly as interesting as many critics did. On a loose thematic level, the songs focus on the impending fear of losing control, the dread of being trapped in a system that makes no sense beyond the abstract and will eventually break down, with the ultimate message to find some core focus within oneself to withstand that collapse - if that even exists. Indeed, the best moments lyrically on this record are when even that internal stability is questioned, like the Velvet Underground-inspired song 'Habit' or the sarcastic commentary on a cyclical life in 'Around Again'. And when focused on those internal crises - all of which can be seen as easy metaphors for the political instability of the time - the album holds together a little better... and yet the ending songs 'Clarity!' and 'Gemini' seem to be the sort of angry punk jibes against establishment figures and a recommitment to finding that inner purpose, which were fine enough songs but seem a little less inspired and lacking in subtlety. But then again, you could make that argument for the whole album, especially considering its instrumentation or lyrics never really accentuates any moments of rawness or real explosive power.

Now granted, punk music can work when it sticks to basic subject matter and supplements it with raw energy and passion and tightness - and here's where my biggest problem where this album comes, because More Than Any Other Day drags - a lot. Every track on this eight song record is longer than four and a half minutes, with the average length being close to five minutes forty-five seconds, and it frequently feels like the mantras Ought creates are more than a little drawn out. Now on the one hand, I get why they did it: like an act like Swans, they're trying to use a slow crescendo to intensify the tension and dread - but on the other hand, Swans at least knew how to pay off that crescendo with moments of crushing, noisy intensity, and Michael Gira always had a very firm grip on the implacable power of his music. Ought, on the other hand, seems to stepping in the opposite direction lyrically and instrumentally, and yet I never get the feeling the encroaching chaos is ever paid off, which leaves the record feeling a little flaccid and anticlimatic.

But in the end, I mostly liked More Than Any Other Day by Ought. It's by no means perfect or a must-buy, but if you have the patience for an arty punk record that takes its time and does produce some pretty solid grooves and a couple interesting lyrical ideas, it's worth a few listens. As I said before, I found the record leaden and not particularly gripping lyrically, but I'll admit others might find it stronger and some of the guitar melodies are definitely deserving of praise. So with that, and the fact I never really found it uninteresting... I think a light 7/10 is appropriate and a cautious recommendation. So if you missed Ought's debut a few months ago, give this a listen, you might enjoy it.

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