In Brief: There’s more drama and detail packed into these four songs than a lot of bands come up with on an entire album. I think they’ll do more than fine if they can keep up anywhere near this level of quality.
Owel is one of those rare bands that seems to have had an extraordinary vision for the sound they wanted to make and exactly the best way to make it, pretty much from day one. Their excellent debut record, which I reviewed last year, has the sort of urgency and sprawling stylistic experimentation you’d expect from a young band wanting to try a little bit of everything, yet the sound of it was remarkably lush and layered and cohesive – downright professional, even. Surprising stuff for a fully self-funded and self-produced effort. I wished that the band would get noticed by a label simply so that they could reach a larger audience by doing exactly what they were already doing, and it seems I got my wish. intheclouds Records, a label I’ve certainly never heard of but one that demonstrates someone in the music biz was listening nonetheless, has partnered with Owel to bring us Every Good Boy, an EP that manages to showcase, within the cramped space of merely 4 songs, the lyrical depth and sonic breadth of Owel’s artistic ambitions.
On this EP, they run the gamut from one of their most confident and catchy art-pop anthems yet all the way down to sparse, dreamy piano ballads, evoking timeless acts like The Beatles and The Beach Boys just as easily as they put their own spin on the kind of exploratory sounds mined by such modern stalwarts as Radiohead and Sigur Rós. You’ve undoubtedly heard a million other bands compared to those bands, but Owel has a gift for pulling together those influences without ever sounding like they’re merely imitating. The glockenspiel and violin help a great deal to set their sound apart, of course, but the real genius of it is that underneath the breathtakingly lovely melodies and Jay Sakong‘s minimal yet evocative lyrical style, there are a lot of little sonic details underneath that make their music well worth a concentrated listen through a good pair of headphones. And yet even if you miss those details due to having their music on in a room or a vehicle with a lot of ambient noise, there’s still an immediacy to most of it that makes the songs jump out and grab you. It’s hard for bands to do both – either they focus on making radio-ready earworms and end up brickwalling the entire thing in the production department, or they get so caught up in the details that a song makes no sense unless you’re willing to constantly fiddle with your volume knob. Owel just has that magic touch, and if these four songs are merely even a hint of what’s hopefully to come on their second full-length, then I can safely say we’re in for many more years of wondering why they’re not as popular as (insert name of the “indie” pop band du jour getting incessant mainstream radio play here).
1. Every Good Boy Does Fine
If Owel ever had a shot at a radio hit, this one would definitely be it. The opening wash of vocals is compelling enough, immediately setting a warm and whimsical tone, but when the electric guitar and Jane Park‘s epic violin riff kick in, that’s when you know they mean business. These elements, along with the clever lyrical reference to a mnemonic every musician probably gets drilled into their heads from childhood, add unique flavor to its already inviting Britpop melody, which twists and turns in all the right ways to clearly set it apart from ordinary mid-tempo pop/rock. Jay ponders his own future as a musician here, wondering if the old adage that everyone with big enough dreams can make them come true, or if that’s just something people tell youngsters when they’re too naive to know any better. I love how his voice runs the gamut from sweet falsetto to slightly angsty alt-rock when the chorus really gets going. Of course this song wouldn’t be what it is without nearly everyone in the band pitching in on backing vocals, driving home the mantra, “That TV told me so” as the source of all those not-terribly-realistic expectations of instant success and superstardom.
Going directly from Owel’s poppiest song yet to one of their moodiest and most long-winded is a weird transition, to be sure. Tonally, this one feels a lot like “Reborn”, the spiritually-tinged epic closer from their album. But it’s not quite as straightforward as that. It’s defining characteristic is a spooky piano waltz that intentionally slips behind the beat every few measures, which seems like an awkward thing to build a song on, but then I think of Radiohead tracks like “Pyramid Song”, “Sail to the Moon”, “Go to Sleep”, “Idioteque”, etc. and how well they work that offbeat formula to their advantage. Owel’s clearly learned from the masters of that technique, and as they mix in plucked strings, glockenspiel, and some downright ghostly backing vocals, I recall that they’re also ardent students of Sigur Rós. Building a song up on those ingredients without sounding like a simple imitation of either of those bands is a true feat, and when the song comes to a climax, it’s quite clearly a thing of Owel’s own creation. The drums seem to be hammering away in 4/4 as if Ryan Vargas had picked up right where he left off in the stunning apex of “Snowglobe”, deliberately in conflict with the other instruments, each appearing to have its own slightly different interpretation of the wacky time signature, while Jay’s vocal plea, “Give me all you have left!” does its best to center the madness. It’s amazing to me that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart at some point during its six-minute run. Despite the awkward-on-paper premise, it remains compelling throughout, and I can easily imagine it as the spine-tingling final or penultimate track on a forthcoming album.
3. Flying Man
I didn’t think as much of this song at first, largely because its intro and first verse are much more plainspoken than the other, more ornate tracks on the EP, and for a while I sort of confused it with some of the mid-tempo tracks that didn’t grab me as much in the middle of the band’s first LP. Its chiming guitars and steady four-on-the-floor rhythm do run the risk of easily being compared to Coldplay, something which I’m hoping the band can resist the temptation to not do too frequently. But it’s the little details, like the way the percussion works it way up from the most basic of rhythms to a regal drum roll by the time the final chorus rolls around, that make it compelling. The band really made an attempt to slowly turn up the heat as this song unfolds, so that by the time the powerful ending rolls around, the listener isn’t already exhausted from everything going full throttle the entire time. It’s a subtle but effective lesson in dynamics that I wish some other, far more popular bands in this genre could learn. Of course the real highlight of this song is the story Jay tells in the lyrics, which is a bit of a tragic fairy tale involving a boy from the moon and a girl from earth who fall in love. The entire arrangement is just dripping with affection, but like a lot of the best love songs, it taps into that deep well of longing for someone or something that we can’t have – or at least, can’t keep.
4. All the World’s Asleep
Speaking of tragic love songs, this ethereal piano ballad might be the biggest tear-jerker out of anything the band’s ever recorded. Jay’s vocals are at their most tender here, trying to comfort someone who is apparently been confined to a single room for most of their existence. He reassures them that there’s nothing beyond that door that will harm them, going so far as to add the intriguing caveat: “Would I lie to you? Well, I would if you want me to.” As the song progresses, he becomes romantically fatalistic enough to suggest that they could marry and live out their entire lives in the confines of those four walls, assured that their past secrets and hurts can never harm them: “And we’ll bury these terrible truths in this room”. The bowed guitar playing creates an eerie atmosphere not unlike Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely”, though the overall construction of the song is more sparse, at least until they get to the big finish, where once again, Ryan just nails those drum rolls, leading us through a huge build-up and final release of emotion before the final, tranquil notes of the piano leave us on a sad yet hopeful cliffhanger. (Apparently the band’s original take on this song had more of a doo-wop feel, if you can believe that. They’ve said they still play it that way live, which means I’m even more anxious to see them in concert than I already was, because that just sounds amazingly absurd.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Every Good Boy Does Fine $2
Flying Man $1.25
All the World’s Asleep $1.50
Jay Sakong: Lead vocals, guitar
Seamus O’Connor: Guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Ryan Vargas: Drums, glockenspiel
Jane Park: Violin, keyboards, backing vocals
Nunzio Moudatsos: Bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: