Artist: OK Go
Album: Of the Blue Colour of the Sky
In Brief: What seems like weird just for weirdness’s sake becomes catchier than the simpler power pop they left behind, given enough time to appreciate it.
I feel like I must be the only web-savvy music lover in America who didn’t find out about OK Go and their famous “treadmill choreography” music video back in 2006 when it premiered. The buzz about “Here It Goes Again” and the work they must have put into its one-shot wonder video was apparently the stuff of legend – the kind of buzz that was easier to escape before I got into Facebook. I’d heard of the band, and knew that their claim to fame was fairly straightforward, energetic power-pop – the sort of thing I didn’t necessarily dislike, but that I could get from a number of sources. So due to missing out on the news of their ingenuity, I wasn’t persuaded to check out the group for a few more years.
The viral video that enabled these guys to get my attention was actually their second version of “This Too Shall Pass”. Already impressive in its first incarnation with the Notre Dame Marching Band, the group outdid themselves by creating a complex Rube Goldberg device that executed its various, so-crazy-it-just-might-work stages in a way that was as fun to watch as that board game Mousetrap back when I was a kid, and finally figured out how to set it up right. That sucker made the rounds on Facebook back in March, and I just had to find out what a band capable of putting that much effort into a music video might have up their sleeves. It didn’t hurt that the song was catchy as hell. But that wasn’t nearly enough to tell me what I was in for.
Of the Blue Colour of the Sky apparently marks a transition for a band mostly known for upbeat, poppy alternative rock music. I can’t speak to the content of previous albums, but there’s plenty here that would make me think twice before applying the “power pop” tag to it wholesale, as the group experiments with odd time signatures, fuzzy synths, gratuitous funk and 80’s influences, and unusual bits of ambiance, the sum total of which is a varied and adventurous collection of songs. All of this can actually be a bit overwhelming and off-putting if you’ve heard the big single and you just pop it in expecting more of the same. Lead singer Damian Kulash is perfectly capable of inciting a sing-along riot when he wants to, but he spends an inordinate amount of time yelping in falsetto, panting, almost whispering, and at one point even appearing as a computerized incarnation of himself. Basically, almost anything to not go the expected route. And the band follows suit, experimenting with the possible textures, melodic twists, and other sounds that their combined instruments can make. We’re not talking so off-the-wall it’s alienating, since the results are still songs with dependable verse/choruses structures, not bizarre avant-garde noise. But there is a lot of experimentation done within the confines of “indie pop” or “alternative rock” or whatever you might want to call their core style. It occasionally strays into territory that I find sonically irritating, but for the most part, that’s not too big of a problem.
The mark of a good rock band, at least for me, is evidence that they put some real thought into their songwriting. Listen to OK Go on the surface, and you’ll probably pick up a lot of the same sentiments of love longed for and loved lost that have kept an endless array of youth-friendly bands afloat for years. But the very design of this album – the kaleidoscopic array of colors on the cover and throughout the bizarre lyric booklet – was apparently dictated by the mood and content of the songs, in an obscure process so baffling that I’m not even going to bother trying to describe it here. that could be just a gimmick, but it illustrates to me that the band cares about what their songs mean, and have the ability to analyze what’s being said on a deeper level and try to balance it so that the album as a whole experience isn’t too much of any one thing. So there are bits of encouragement and elation set up just so that the navel-gazing doesn’t get you down for too long, and then there are more stark, reflective moments just when you’re worried things might get too insipid. I wouldn’t elevate it to the level of pure poetry, just as I wouldn’t necessarily label the music high art, but most of it is quite thoughtful and intriguing. An album which I genuinely wasn’t sure was worth purchasing after the first two or three times I listened to it has slowly turned out to be an album that I keep going back to, that keeps reminding me of new favorite songs that I hadn’t given their due before. It’s a sturdy piece of work. It’s lasted me for pretty much the entire year, past the point where other records I was listening to a lot in early 2010 only get yanked out occasionally. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky may not be perfect, but I think you’ve got a good shot at getting your money’s worth out of it.
Some bizarre, stuttering sounds assault you as this track comes rumbling to life. It’s the band’s best approximation of a Prince song, mashed into 5/4 time because hey, why not? Excusing the album’s lone profanity in the first line of the song (and honestly, you’re pretty dense if you didn’t see that one coming), this track is one of the album’s most entertaining and enjoyable rides, since everything’s so off-kilter and yet it all fits together in perfect sync – the staccato rhythm guitar, the helium-laced vocals, the fuzzy bass, and an absolutely hyperactive guitar solo. It’s all an ode to a woman who is apparently so fascinating that the mere thought of interacting with her is enough to really screw with a guy’s head. It should be pretty easy to connect if you’ve ever had a crush that has caused your thoughts to spin out of control – “It’s like a skydive… I’m getting high… the kind of thrill that could just kill you!”
2. This Too Shall Pass
This is the song that got me hooked. I’ve gushed about the brilliant music videos already, but I think it’d be pretty silly to get hooked on a band just because of a clever music video if the song itself wasn’t any good. Fortunately, this thing’s catchy as all hell, owing in no small part to its four chimey piano chords that repeat over and over and over again. (The Rube Goldberg video even gets in on the fun by approximating those chords with water glasses. I took that as a sign that the band paid close attention to the composition of their music and how well it fit the video.) Some might find that this song runs its own hook into the ground, but that’s the fine line that power pop walks, and due to that, this would be the track with the most obvious connection to OK Go’s past. The lyrics are appropriately simple, and almost stupidly inspirational as they try to pick the listener up off the floor after some sort of huge letdown, and gain the perspective that sleeping on it often brings (see this chorus, which is literally nothing more than “When the morning comes” repeated several times with glorious vocal harmony). What keeps the song from being monotonous is the way things are layered, which is most evident as all the guys chime in to sing the bridge (which comes close to an acapella break), and then that bridge of “Let it go, this too shall pass” collides with the chorus we’re already used to and another chorus of gang vocals shouting “You can’t keep letting it get you down!” It’s hard not to get swept away in that final victory lap.
3. All Is Not Lost
This is one of those “in-between” songs that I’ve never really noticed as much – it serves to keep the momentum going as it follows on the theme of picking yourself up and assessing the situation after a staggering loss from the last song. The view’s more pragmatic here, but ultimately hopeful, hinting at some inner strength that cannot be lost even if all you have seems to be burning to the ground. It’s not a particularly deep insight, but I’ll let it slide. The drums and bass really drive the song, since the guitars are relegated to more of a dry, acoustic sound just to keep the beat, but there is an electric guitar (possibly two of them, or else some slick double-tracking) that pops out for a nice little solo in the bridge. This isn’t one of my favorites, but I have no negative feelings about it, so I’ll label it “pretty good” and leave it at that.
Here’s where the angst starts to come out – though it’s released with the abandonment of a small child banging on things, judging from the off-kilter rhythm and the drums and bass smashing hard enough that the noise level seems to go into the red. Damian’s definitely exploring the more pessimistic side of the coin here as he bemoans a relationship that isn’t going so well, but that he can’t seem to completely call off, leaving him in an uncomfortable sort of stasis as he bellows: “I’ve been waiting for months, waiting for years/Waiting for you to change/But there ain’t much that’s dumber, ain’t much that’s dumber/That pinning your hopes on the change in another.” (Look for this to get reprised in a sweet acapella break later in the song.) They notably deviate from their usual formula in this one, in that there’s no chorus per se, just verses that culminate in the same line: “Needing is one thing, and getting, getting’s another.” The band’s experimental side comes out to play here, which will be off-putting to some as they basically keeps the tape rolling while the drums thrash about (changing the odd rhythm to make it even odder) and the guitars squeak out some strange, off-key noises. This leads to more of a low-key outro where the guys are singing slowly, elliptically: “When… Why not now?… Why not me?” and the beat just keeps on writhing about as if nobody bothered telling drummer Dan Konopka it was time to end the song.
A more subdued version of the band’s funk influence shows up here – this one’s all about a beat that carefully inches up behind you, and Tim Nordwind‘s ominous bass line gives it that extra-ominous feeling of being stalked. (It’s especially effective on a drive through downtown Los Angeles on a deserted holiday evening, as I discovered last night.) Damien reduces his voice to a near-whisper as he makes a strange plea for the skyscrapers to forgive him, for some sort of a lack of faith. This almost sounds like the voice of a man who didn’t take the risky freefall described in “WTF?”, and now he’s pondering what he might have lost and wishing he’d had the stones to make the jump. I enjoy this one until the vocals get unexpectedly intense, at which point the whisper becomes a bit of a constipated scream, sneaking up into the high-pitched”squeal” range in an ill-advised attempt to imitate better vocalists from the genre. I guess there’s an honest pathos to it, but most of the time it has a nails-on-chalkboard effect on my ears. It doesn’t help that the drums and bass just sort of chug on for a good minute or so after that – a less charming case of not ending the song at the conventional, expected moment.
6. White Knuckles
The pop/funk hybrid approach kicks back into high gear with this peppy little track, where the guitars are set on maximum zip while the vocals mostly remain on simmer. You will get this one stuck in your head and find yourself humming it later, but chances are you’ll be humming the riffs rather than the comparatively flat vocal melody. None of this is a complaint, since Damian and the guys are letting rhythm be their melody, punctuating the pauses in their lyrics with a handclap every now and then (which is hilariously timed in the video, where they do another one of their famous one-take routines with a pack of trained dogs). Damian and Andy Ross have a lot of fun with their highly processed, squealy guitar solos here, and the whole song has this audacious air of making trouble and getting away with it, or at least consoling a person who expects to get busted for something they did, saying “maybe it’s not so bad” in reference to the fallout from their mistake. I like that the song’s so much fan that you can just ignore the lyrics if you choose to, but they’re interesting if not easily interpreted, so you don’t have to ignore them in order to enjoy the song.
7. I Want You So Bad I Can’t Breathe
Nothing much to interpret here. The band turns the dial down a bit on the funk party, but there are still those guitar licks and drums stomping all over the place, bringing the band through another zig-zagging melody as Damian pines for a girl who’s just out of his reach. Maybe he doesn’t even really know her – she could just be a stranger he sees at the bus stop on every cold Chicago morning, from what I’m gathering from those lyrics. If so, that might push the obsession into James Blunt territory, but then I never get the hint that his involuntary hyperventilation will turn into outright asphyxiation, so let’s just consider this another harmless crush. I don’t get as caught up in this one as I do with the catchier songs surrounding it (and there are points where the slightly suggestive gasping gets to be a bit silly), but like “All Is Not Lost”, it’s a good momentum-maintainer that keeps the album running along quite briskly.
8. End Love
Now we go from funk pop to 80’s pop, complete with a relentless, robotic beat and intentionally cheesy keyboard hits that create intentional dissonance with this song’s ruminating on the end of a relationship. It might as well be the end of the world, for all the desperation Damian and the guys have to express here, and yet there’s some hope that the woman might find the courage to make up her mind and say yea or nay, rather than leave the guy in this uncomfortable limbo. (Hmmm, sounds like the songwriting on this album in general was inspired by a frustrating on again/off again relationship. I hate those.) If you’re like me, you’ll find enough life and emotion amidst all of the calculated drum and keyboard programming that the song won’t feel long to you at all. (It’s only four minutes, yet it feels like it’s packed to the brim with good stuff, at least to my ears.) And not that the song needs this to be pretty freaking cool, but there was another fascinating video made for this one, this time with a single sixteen-hour take compressed into four minutes via stop-motion animation. Done here in my very own backyard! (Alright, Echo Park in Los Angeles. Close enough. Actually, I’m kind of glad that’s not literally my backyard.)
9. Before the Earth Was Round
If you don’t like overly synthesized pop music, then consider “End Love” to be fair warning, because we’re about to segue into the portion of the album where things get extra bizarre. The subdued rhythm here is played by real drums, but entirely measured and robotic in the way that it is performed, tapping out the most stilted version of 6/4 time that I could ever imagine, while the guitar adds a bit more fluidity to compensate. Damian’s voice is almost entirely digitized by way of a vocorder, not for reasons of correcting an off-key performance, but just because the band thought it sounded cool. In this case, just confined to the one song, I agree (and I’m glad they didn’t overuse it by sneaking it into other songs.) Damian sounds more detached, less like the voice of a man and more like the voice of some automated system controlling the universe itself, lamenting how the sky was once blue and all of creation was once honest with itself. It’s the least personal, and most philosophical song on the album. Don’t tune the computer voice out, or you’ll miss some interesting analogies and contradictions.
10. Last Leaf
My big pet peeve about rock bands trying to show their “sensitive side” rears its ugly head here, as OK Go is stripped back to nothing but a single man’s voice and an acoustic guitar, possibly the most cliched move in the pop music handbook. I can enjoy it when something interesting’s being done with that guitar, but in this case it’s just one of those basic, dry strums, which is irritating for a band that seems to enjoy tweaking their instruments and their gear to make interesting sounds and to give their songs a distinct mood. There are bits of Damian’s plaintive vocal melody that briefly compel me as he compares the one he loves to a leaf waiting to fall from an otherwise bare branch in autumn. But there’s so little in the way of lyrics here (since it’s thankfully a rather short song) that I don’t feel like he fully commits to the analogy. Honestly, this one feels like a demo that snuck its way onto an album of songs that, for the most part, are much more fully realized. To put it more simply, it’s kinda boring.
11. Back From Kathmandu
This might be a better case of doing something interesting with more of an acoustic arrangement, but it’s definitely a full-band effort and there is a bit of electric guitar here. Acoustic guitar and more of a clean, prominent bass lead the way, creating an organic groove that doesn’t sound like much at first, but turns out to be quite sturdy as the band begins to layer other sounds on top of it. It’s a somewhat psychedelic song about a dream, full of infinite, world-changing imagery, with literally everyone in the whole world there and yet the focus clearly being on one person. Not surprisingly, that one person it’s a beautiful woman. What’s interesting is that she’s different from her true self in the dream, yet Damian assures her, “In the dream you were, just like you are.” There’s a slight Beatles quality to it, in the way that contradiction is thrown out there just to be taken as it is, and also in the carnival-like aura that builds up as the song progresses. I didn’t think much of it at first, but now it’s becoming one of my favorites.
12. While You Were Asleep
The album’s already gotten noticeably mellow after “End Love”, but this is the point where it literally starts to get quite sleepy. That’s not a terrible thing, as I find the twinkly keyboard ambiance quite agreeable (and bizarrely, even in a song this quiet, they use handclaps to keep the beat here and there). But I’m not sure the contrast between the gentle, pre-dawn mood of the verses and the seasick melody that starts the song and that comes looming back up in its noisy coda are a good fit for each other. The lyrics – while minimal – do paint some interesting pictures with the few words available, describing a man walking the streets as his lover sleeps, pondering why their love doesn’t feel the way it used to.
13. In the Glass
The grand finale seems to me like a bit of a nightmarish one, with a boisterous organ blaring away as the drums bang out a midtempo beat, the chords descending like something out of a shlocky old horror film. I guess it’s appropriate for a song about a man who finds himself in a sort of Twilight Zone episode as he realizes he can’t recognize his own reflection in the mirror, leading to a lot of navel-gazing and pondering “My God, what have I done?” It’s like he somehow cheated the system to get himself here, and he now regrets it and wants things back the way they were – the classic cautionary tale. In spirit, I like what this song is trying to accomplish, but the flattened melody just grates on my last nerve, and there’s this point where it all drops out and there’s this lone electric guitar building us back up toward a big, crunchy finish, and that long coda doesn’t really deliver the excitement that it promises. So basically, we’ve got six minutes of drudgery – inventive drudgery, at least, but still a bit of a letdown at the end of an album that has otherwise kept me entertained.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
This Too Shall Pass $2
All Is Not Lost $1
White Knuckles $1.50
I Want You So Bad I Can’t Breathe $.50
End Love $2
Before the Earth Was Round $1
Last Leaf $0
Back From Kathmandu $1.50
While You Were Asleep $.50
In the Glass $0
Damian Kulash: Lead vocals, guitar
Tim Nordwind: Bass, backing vocals
Andy Ross: Guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Dan Konopka: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: