In Brief: If you’ve heard OK Go before, just add a bit more electronic and disco influence to the mix, and you know exactly what you’re getting. This one’s about as much of a grab bag as the album that came before it, and it’ll likely spawn just about as many viral videos and naggingly catchy choruses you can’t get out of your head over the months to come.
What, it’s almost the end of 2014 and I still haven’t reviewed the new OK Go record? I’m really slacking this year. It’s not like it should be that difficult of a review to write. The Chicago-based band is known for doing a few things incredibly well – crafting incessant earworms in their chosen genre of funk and synth-influenced power pop, and meticulously putting together elaborate, one-take music videos to match those songs, often inspiring a response of “Whoa, how’d they do that?” in an age where computer-enhanced special effects and other forms of technological wizardry often leave us too cynical to ask such questions. Their music isn’t terribly deep, but it’s fun. Occasionally it’s experimental in a way that veers outside of the “obvious catchy chorus” approach, which adds variety to their records, but also a bit of inconsistency. Ultimately, it makes most of their songs stand out almost immediately, for better or worse, which should mean I’ve got an incredibly easy review to write. I think what had me flummoxed for a while was that I was trying to find depth and nuance in songs that didn’t all necessarily have much there for me to find. Some subtler, softer sounds show up later in this album, and they’re an interesting detour, but to be honest with you, I’m mostly here for the more fun and immediate stuff.
The TL;DR version for folks who don’t want to dig into the details is that while OK Go can be overzealous with their gee-whiz effects and their genre throwbacks at times, it’s hard to find a more likable or hard-working band making innocuous indie pop music nowadays. That makes the small handful of missteps on Hungry Ghosts more than forgivable. In fact, it might be an easier record to get into when listening to it front-to-back than 2010’s Of the Blue Colour of the Sky was. I haven’t decided which record is better, but the few tedious moments on Hungry Ghosts don’t seem to drag on for nearly as long as a semi-irritating song like “Skyscrapers” or “In the Glass” did. There’s nothing as immediately funk-tastic as “WTF?” here, either, but the most memorable songs easily rival big singles like “This Too Shall Pass”, “White Knuckles”, and “End Love” from their last one. Ultimately, if you liked OK Go before, not much is gonna change here. Maybe this record favors gee-whiz keyboard effects a little more than the jumpy guitar solos that punctuated a few songs on Sky, and maybe there’s more disco influence here, but ultimately the intent is the same: To put a big smile on your face. I think they pulled it off.
1. Upside Down & Inside Out
Just as OK Go’s music videos can be visually disorienting (as well as this album’s cover photo, come to think of it), sometimes their music can be aurally disorienting. The opening track on this album is an excellent example, slamming you with all manner of stuttering keyboard and guitar effects, and sounding like it’s trying too hard in general to make sure its massive hook sticks the landing. I suppose some of it’s warranted for a song about a woman who seems to have lost control of herself – her rapid mood swings and her personality that seems to change daily are “like an airplane going down”. She’s trying to fight gravity itself, it seems, and it’s inevitable that she’s going to lose. While I don’t dig too hard for clever little nuggets in most of OK Go’s lyrics, I will admit that the line “When you met the new you, did someone die inside?” is just witty enough to sting a little. While I enjoy the song, it did take a while for me to sort out what was fun about it from what was headache-inducing about it, and since it seems to show off studio effects more than their cohesiveness as a band, I wouldn’t recommend that this song be your first exposure to OK Go.
2. The Writing’s on the Wall
I can’t find much to complain about here. The album’s first single – which was our first taste of new music from the band this summer after a four-year drought (Muppet movie meta-humor notwithstanding) – feels a lot like saying hello to an old friend again. A rather spastic old friend who feels the need to high-five you every few minutes, but still. The group still wears their love of electronic music and retro pop influence on their sleeve, pilfering bits and pieces from disco and Depeche Mode alike, but the churning guitar riffs and the loud, crashing drums give it a lot more of a “live band” sound than the opening track had. Amidst this glorious celebration of sound is actually a bit of a sad story, as a guy decides it’s time to face up to the facts and admit that the spark has gone out between him and his girl. The song is part “Know when to fold ’em” wisdom, and part “Let’s go out with a bang” youthful optimism, which leads to a chorus that, as far as I can tell, hasn’t been misinterpreted as frequently as it probably deserves to be: “I just wanna get you high tonight/I just wanna see some pleasure in your eyes.” He just wants to show her one last good time, for nostalgia’s sake, before they pack it in. And it doesn’t need to involve drugs. Though if you want to feel like you’re trippin’, be sure to check out the music video, which is reminiscent of “This Too Shall Pass” with its warehouse full of odd contraptions and the band members dashing to and fro to make sure they’re all in front of the right parts of the machine during the single, unbroken take. This time, instead of a Rube Goldberg device, they pull off some rather amusing optical illusions, and you’ll probably need to watch it more than once to understand what the heck’s going on.
3. Another Set of Issues
If you were wary of the electronic effects dominating the first song, then this one’s really gonna through you for a loop. I honestly can’t tell if there’s a single live instrument to be heard throughout the entire thing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it’s an interesting exercise in taking a minimal programmed beat and a goofy keyboard melody and slowly building them up until everything’s in manic overdrive. Despite the robotic nature of it all, the swaying, syncopated rhythm keeps the song from being too stiff, and it’s actually a lot of fun to listen to even if I think they go overboard with all of the dissonant buzzing sounds at times. Damian Kulash sings in falsetto here, and it’s not quite as much of a strain on his voice as “Skyscrapers” was, but it’ll probably weird a few listeners out for the same reason. The oddball sound effects dominate this one to the point where the lyrics – which I guess are about a relationship that once seemed perfect turning out to be less than that (profound, eh?) – seem like a bit of an afterthought.
4. Turn Up the Radio
Now I’m not one to criticize an obvious wannabe radio single just for being poppy. That sort of thing is right up OK Go’s alley, and if the very principle of it offended me, I’d never have gotten into their music in the first place. But this one is so on the nose that it just feels like it’s pandering to the most generic audience possible. They hit us right away with an unimaginative chorus about turning up the radio and blasting all of the bad feelings into oblivion because it’s time to party or something. If you didn’t know OK Go was an actual band who did a lot of their own tinkering in the studio, you might be tempted to think this was the word of some gyrating boy band trying to sound slightly edgy and “alternative”. It’s not altogether unpleasant to listen to (and Kulash manages to pull off a pretty nifty guitar solo in the bridge, which is more akin to his work on Of the Blue Colour of the Sky), and there might even be some clever lines stashed away in the verses, but for the most part I’m just not digging this one. There’s the good kind of “music about music”, which offers some sort of witty commentary on the effect that it has on the listener, and then there’s the bad kind, which just sounds like a cheesy commercial for itself. This definitely leans toward the latter.
The funk influence that I was missing from the previous album comes out a little stronger here, merging quite well with the electronic pop sounds that the band’s become so fascinated with this time around, mostly due to an array of fun percussion sounds. (It appears that they found the “cowbell” setting on their keyboard and went bonkers with it, among other things.) The minor key melody is perfect for the semi-creepy vibe that’s too fun to be taken terribly seriously. This could sound like a total stalker song in the hands of another band – and some bands can pull off that sort of thing rather well, don’t get me wrong. But OK Go somehow manages to make misreading a sideways glance from an attractive woman, which could have been an accident or an afterthought on her part, and turn it into an obsessive schoolboy crush that drives a guy to the brink of reason. “It’s not passing fascination now”, the increasingly robotic vocals assure us. And since I’ve easily given this one almost twice as many spins as most of the rest of the album, I can definitely say that those words match my feeling about the song – it was instantly likeable, but my interest in it hasn’t waned over time.
6. I’m Not Through
The band settles into a mellower disc groove here, almost immediately dooming this song to “never gonna be a hit” status due to its rather inauspicious opening lines: “I know you gotta go/And there’s some sh*t you gotta do/And oh, all this talk is bringing me down”. I suppose Kulash is trying to play the “pathetic loser” angle here, begging a woman who is on her way out the door to stay and let him talk things through with her, and you can tell from his increasing desperation that she’s only half-listening anyway. It’s… not brilliant songwriting. But the incredibly smooth group vocals, elongating the “ooh” in “through”, ensure that the chorus immediately rescues the song from the scrap heap. And then they bring in the string section. If I had platform shoes, I’m pretty sure I’d be putting them on and busting a move (or, more likely, a tailbone) at that point.
7. Bright As Your Eyes
So far on this record, I’ve let a fair amount of so-so lyrics pass simply because the music was somewhat inventive and a lot of fun to listen to. It’s mildly disturbing to realize that about myself, since I’ve always thought of lyrics as being one of the most important aspects of a song. But then a song like this one comes along to remind me that I still have my limits. Interesting music can cover for mediocre lyrics, but not horrible ones. And this one’s pretty horrible. At first I didn’t mind the low, buzzing synths that give the song its rhythm – yeah, they sound kinda farty, but I’ve heard (and enjoyed) weirder sounds from St. Vincent, so this is pretty mild by comparison. Then the rapidfire beat kicks in, and yet oddly the song still seems relaxed and midtempo. OK, a bit of a curveball, but not inherently bad. Then the lyrics come along, and they sound like about 10 bad Hallmark cards rolled into one, explaining how the entire universe could align in perfect harmony and yet all of these beautiful sights “will never shine bright as your eyes”. I have a pretty high tolerance for lovey-dovey song lyrics, but I just have to retch at this one. It doesn’t help that the chorus melody is pretty much dead on arrival, and it’s mindlessly repeated throughout most of the song. Not even a peppy string section can salvage this one.
8. I Won’t Let You Down
Oh hey, speaking of peppy string sections! I’m going to sound like I’m contradicting myself, because we’ve got another insanely repetitive lyric here (the title clues you in as to what about 50% of the song’s lyrics are gonna be), and the strings are once again doing exactly what you’d expect if you’ve listened to just about anything that was popular in the 70s, and they’re pretty much going full-throttle for all of the disco-funk cliches that they can take on at once. But this one never feels like it’s brute-forcing a sound that doesn’t work. Despite all of the funky guitar and talkbox effects and the throwaway nature of the song’s sound and message, it feels like there’s some authentic musicianship happening here, largely due to the slippery piano melody that likes to take the funnest possible zig-zag route from each chord to the next. (Yes, I said “funnest”. That’s the appropriate superlative for a song that’s as much big, dumb fun as this one.) Everybody’s on fire here, and it sounds like the band was having a blast interacting with each other as they worked this one out. I didn’t even need an elaborate music video to make me fall in love with this one, but the radio single gods apparently agreed with me that this was by far the catchiest thing on the album, and we ended up with a suitably delightful video that involves an army of Japanese schoolgirls performing Busby Berkeley-style choreography with the band and ultimately being used as human LEDs. It is perhaps the most geekily adorable thing ever to exist.
9. The One Moment
I always think of this one as “the stadium song”. With its huge, pounding drum intro, and its surprisingly straightforward electric guitar riffing, it sounds like the band is imagining that they’re playing to a U2-sized audience. I really have no idea what sort of crowd they can actually pull together at one of their live shows, but this sounds like the perfect number to bring down the house with as they close a set. There aren’t too many twists and turns here – maybe a hyperactive guitar solo here, and some nice overlapping vocals toward the end of the song, but here the quirks don’t get in the way of the straight-ahead power pop goodness. That also means that it veers into the same sort of “live for the moment” territory that seemed like it was getting old back when I was in college and that song “Save Tonight” was big. But I suppose if you’re trying to build a monument to a moment in time that you want to capture and remember forever, you kind of have to go big or go home.
10. If I Had a Mountain
Hope you enjoyed that final burst of energy, because it’s all introspection from here to the end of the album. And most of it’s pretty weird. This song seems to want to subvert the big percussion sounds they’ve employed elsewhere, even on their most computerized songs, because here the beat is this “squishy” sort of sound that could well have been sampled from someone whispering or their shoes squeaking as they walked down a damp hallway, for all I can tell. It’s interesting at first, but it can’t really carry the song all by itself. Melodically, the song’s got a slight spring to its step, and the cutesy lyrics about how a guy would show devotion to his girl if he was in possession of such un-ownable things as a mountain or an ocean put it squarely in the “twee indie pop” category. There’s something naggingly familiar about it, almost as if it’s a cross between the down-tempo musings of “Last Leaf” and the spacious, “starry night” backdrop of “While You Were Asleep”, both from their previous album. It’s not awful, but it’s not great, either.
11. The Great Fire
In terms of less poppy and more “experimental” tracks, this one’s probably the album’s best in that department. What could have been a slow and somewhat clunky musing on the last moment when that final ember of romance died out between two people, is instead revved up by an electronic loop that sends a few jigawatts of electricity down its spine, its energetic rhythm purposefully conflicting with the laid-back nature of the song. Some of the vintage sound effects remind me of what Sufjan Stevens did on The Age of Adz, but there’s a bit of subtle blues or jazz influence that I can’t quite place in the subdued guitar melody. Despite the conflicting musical worlds fighting for control, the vocals keep the song centered, and they’re dang near heartbreaking at times. There’s a moment when he asks her how certain she is about what she wants, that could almost be a bit of meta-commentary on the band’s musical transformation over the years: “So this is really what you want/And not some wild experiment/That you’re just trying?”
I’ve commented before that ending a mostly electronic and/or rock-oriented album with an out-of-nowhere acoustic ballad is one of the big cliches of popular music that needs to die a swift death. I like a lot of acoustic music, and I tend to enjoy this sort of thing when a band has shown some acoustic prowess elsewhere. OK Go’s done barely enough of that before to get a pass here, but considering the entire album up to this point, it’s still a huge non-sequitur that feels like an obligatory statement of “By the way, we’re sensitive family guys, too”. I’ve lost count of the number of artists who have unimaginatively titled a song “Lullaby”, and usually put it at the end of their album, because someone in the group had a baby and they got the exact same inspiration that every musician who is a new parent seems to get. That’s not to say that there isn’t some beauty and imagination present in this slow, acoustic waltz. I do enjoy hearing what a normally high-energy band can do when all of their toys are taken away and they only have a simple instrument and their voices to rely upon. The melody goes to a few inventive places as Damian coos softly, trying to lull a young child to sleep from somewhere thousands of miles away, wishing that the child would dream daddy is right there by its side. The expected portion of the audience who have young kids at home will respond by melting into predictable little puddles of goo. As someone who’s been planning to take that leap for a few years now, I do have to admit that a part of me is vulnerable as well. But then I think of really creative songs on the topic, like the Barenaked Ladies‘ “When You Dream”, and I figure OK Go probably could have tried a little harder with this one.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Upside Down & Inside Out $1
The Writing’s on the Wall $2
Another Set of Issues $1
Turn Up the Radio $.50
I’m Not Through $1.25
Bright As Your Eyes –$.25
I Won’t Let You Down $2
The One Moment $1.25
If I Had a Mountain $.50
The Great Fire $1.25
Damian Kulash: Lead vocals, guitars
Tim Nordwind: Bass, backing vocals
Dan Konopka: Drums, percussion
Andy Ross: Guitars, keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: