Review: Better Oblivion Community Center (Self-Titled)

“Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year. Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.”

FFO: Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes, Folk-Rock

Apparently, Phoebe Bridgers really likes working with other people.  After releasing last year’s excellent boygenius EP in October with fellow indie stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, she has returned with another collaborative album, with virtually no prior warning.  This past Thursday, our ears were blessed by the self-titled debut from Better Oblivion Community Center, a collaboration between Bridgers and emo-folk veteran Conor Oberst (most famous for his work with Bright Eyes). 

Although the album was a surprise to everyone, it is not the first time that the two have collaborated.  Bridgers’ excellent debut Stranger In The Alps (2017) features a duet with Oberst on the back half of the record called “Would You Rather.”  The collaboration made sense on the album; Bridgers’ blend of haunting lyrics and folk-rock melodies bears obvious influence from Oberst’s work, which she likely would’ve listened to while growing up.  It was a point of connection on the record to a previous generation of songwriters, showing the progression of the genre over time. 

While “Would You Rather” is a duet and sounds like one, none of the songs on Better Oblivion Community Center play off as duets.  It definitively sounds like a band effort.  Although some songs have a more hushed, acoustic environment, most have some sort of full-band arrangement.  And, while Bridgers and Oberst do take turns on lead-vocal duties, they are more often singing at the same time.  Although side-by-side their voices can sound like an odd pairing (to me, Oberst’s nasally, cracked voice always sounded kind of funny next to Bridgers on “Would You Rather”), when they sing together the contrast works quite well.  Sometimes Bridgers is mixed louder and sometimes Oberst is, but it is done in a way that spreads the tonal emphasis perfectly, helping their two distinct voices to blend and compliment one another. 

The album also showcases both singers’ abilities as lyricists.  The haunting opener “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” is a Phoebe lead track where she, in her detailed style, takes the listener down the road of an existential crisis in the form of cosmic helplessness, “I didn’t know what I was in for / when I signed up for that run / there’s no way I’m curing cancer, but I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud for all the good I’ve done.”  Conor joins her on the chorus, and although you can surmise that this is a Phoebe song, he sounds perfectly natural singing along with her. 

Although Oberst does not disappoint at all as a lyricist, his writing voice is so unique that Bridgers occasionally has a hard time keeping up in the same way that he does on her songs.  The Oberst songs are the ones that, while strong, sound less like a band, and more like a Conor Oberst project.  Again, this is not necessarily bad, but it makes the record slightly uneven at points.  This is perhaps the strength and weakness of the album.  Having more than one fantastic songwriter on the project is a dream, but as a result, it lacks the cohesion and emotional tension of both artists’ previous work at some points. 

Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year.  Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.  This record sounds like it was a joy to make and collaborate on; it comes through in every performance.  While it may not be as emotionally gripping as their solo work, it doesn’t have to be in order to be a great record.  Also, I’ve got to say, I really, really hope they tour together. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Label: Dead Oceans

Release Date: Jan 24, 2019

The DIY Deep Dive: “Parental Guidance” by Ok O’Clock

“Life isn’t PG 13, Life has language And full frontal nudity
Its got drug abuse and depictions of minors drinking
Its got gore and it gets ugly”

FFO Sorority Noise, The Hotelier, Free Throw

The DIY Deep Dive is a monthly column to showcase impressive DIY touring artists who are in the very early stages of their career. These artists may not always have the most glitzy or refined recordings, but their underlying talent shines through their low budget. To qualify for this column an artist must have less than 2000 social media followers and preferably be independent, while displaying the talent and creativity of acts much larger. Think of this as a column for early-adopters: get in on the ground floor with these artists and help them get to the next level.

Our DIY Deep Dive for January, 2019 is Parental Guidance from Kansas City emo artist Ok O’ Clock.

“Parental Guidance” by Ok O’Clock

Lance Rutledge, aka Ok O’Clock

Life isn’t PG 13, Life has language 
And full frontal nudity 
Its got drug abuse and depictions of minors drinking 
Its got gore and it gets ugly 
Its a compilation of every life colliding 
It’s a conflagration of stressful nights and anxiety 
It’s the mom next door worried about her son 
Because its 3 AM in the morning 
And he hasn’t come back from that party

Parental Guidance (song) by Ok O’Clock

The sophomore full-length from Kansas City, MO songwriter Lance Rutledge is a vulnerable reckoning with grief on the cosmic level. Here he tries to process a world that seems to be unraveling; attempting to reconcile the death, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse pervading his circumstances with the concept of a loving and caring God. It’s confessionalism at its most frank and unapologetic, calling to mind recent emo monoliths Sorority Noise and The Hotelier.

There is an overwhelming sense of unease that carries through the whole album. This manifests itself not so much as hopelessness, but as helplessness, the by-product of hearing a friend say “we’re all gonna die anyway”and fixating on that moment at the funeral, or watching the ambulance cart your roommate off after he overdoses on pills.  It’s the frantic feeling of wanting to help, but not knowing how to make the situation better. “Never be afraid / To talk to me / Never be afraid / To say I need you,” Rutledge pleads quietly on Talk, but soon he too needs saving. As the song transitions to Waltz in 4/4 he finds himself in the midst of self-destruction: “You either go out fighting / Or you go quiet in the night / Not at all like it should be / Not everyone survives.”

The lyrics are the clear focal point on Parental Guidance, asking hard questions in hard situations through well-crafted line after well-crafted line. Perhaps the most probing stanza of all comes partway through The Optimistwhere Rutledge tries to make sense of the phrase “God has a plan”: “Mad Scientist of the cosmos: / ‘Have you met my finest specimen Job?’ / ‘he ran the maze in record time’ / But what about his wife and kids? / Go on about your pottery / Why did you orchestrate all this / At the expense of their eternity?” He closes the song with bewilderment, “I was supposed to be the careless one / Not you.” Every painful moment is laid out in detail; raw, emotional, and afraid.

Parental Guidance is Ok O’Clock’s most complete work to date, a well-thought out record complete with recurring musical motifs, found sound interludes, and a full narrative arc. For fans displaced after Sorority Noise’s recent fall from grace, or anyone looking for a potent and relatable emo album with its sights set much higher than highschool relationship drama, this should prove a worthwhile listen. You can check it out below and follow our DIY Deep Dive playlist on Spotify to hear selections from this and other DIY Deep Dive albums any time.

Review: “Princess Diana” by The Mañana People

“Princess Diana, the debut full-length from German freak-folk/psyche-country duo The Mañana People is the kind of album that almost seems tailor-made for a quirky coming of age indie-movie.”

FFO: Space-Westerns, Olde-Timey, Freak Folk

In the early 2010s there was a string of movies where the protagonist somehow ends up involved with an eccentric indie band. Jim Carrey fell in love with the singer of an avant-garde noise pop band in Yes Man, Michael Fassbender wore a giant papier-mâché head and fronted a psychedelic rock band in Frank, and of course Ellen Page and Michael Cera formed their own quirky folk duo in the smash hit Juno, which briefly popularized bubbly, cutesy folk with its accompanying soundtrack. It was such a popular trend for those few years that it almost became its own subgenre and launched specifically Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel into the spotlight. 

While these movies put a ton of underground artists in the spotlight for a brief moment, there was a certain sense that the viewer was supposed to see these kinds of music as weird, perhaps endearingly so, but still other to them. Where the obscure musician stereotype wasn’t fetishized (like in Scott Pilgrim V.S. the World) it was often played as a sort of joke. Fortunately for the actual artists in these obscure corners of music, these movies had an unintended side effect: a bunch of kids who never would have known these genres existed genuinely fell in love with the new musical world now in front of them. I was one such kid. 

Princess Diana, the debut full-length from German freak-folk/psyche-country duo The Mañana Peopleis the kind of album that almost seems tailor-made for a quirky coming of age indie-movie. Their blend of lo-fi country, harmonies that fall somewhere between The Beach Boysand The Eagles, and inventive sci-fi storytelling plant them firmly in a niche all their own. Top that off with the occasional whirligig synth line, a few timely handclaps, and the always-essential theremin solo, and you have the recipe for an immediate cult classic and/or the soundtrack to the next popular Sundance film. It’s infectious fun from the very first song, practically oozing with good-natured joy. 

The Mañana People draw from quite a variety of host material to create their unique brand of entertainment. What is particularly impressive is the way they contour their harmonies to further distinguish each song. On Matchstick Manthey resemble The Beach Boys, while on Anthrophagus they sound more like 70s Southern rockers The Outlaws, and on People Who Don’t Know They’re Deadthey once again reimagine themselves as a barbershop quartet. Musically The Mañana People are equally prone to experiment, usually leaning on old-timey country guitars, but occasionally dipping into Frankenstein organs, surf guitars, lo-fi electronic drums, and old-English balladry, doing each separate style justice and maintaining their indie-pop chops throughout. 

The lyrics more often than not tell tales of zombies, murder mysteries, and traveler’s woes, calling to mind the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Though hoaky at points, both writers consistently display a talent for penning gripping lines that jump beyond their narrative context. Perhaps the best example of this comes on the chorus of the penultimate track It’s Harder to Try, a old-timey country tune akin to The Carter Family“May the road rise to greet you / May the songs fill your head / May your house be safe from tigers / May your youth be well-spent / It’s so hard to be kind / But it’s harder to try.” While their particular brand of lyricism certainly isn’t for everyone, it is unusually captivating for what it is. It takes a rare songwriter to get a listener invested in a song about zombie battles, but The Mañana Peoplepull it off more times than not.

While Princess Diana is a very unique album and generally quite engaging, it can feel a bit disjointed at times. The album’s composition is a little inconsistent, with the track order sometimes seeming very thought out and at other times haphazard. It sits in that awkward, uncanny valley between albums that were designed to be cohesive and albums that were really just a collection of songs, not really committing to either side. This makes listening to Princess Diana as a unit an uneven experience, despite each song for the most part standing on its own merits. Despite this, however, it is still quite a fun and enjoyable collection of tunes.

All in all the debut LP from The Mañana People makes for an intriguing listen, so unique as to peak your interest and yet with enough familiar ground to keep your attention focused. Fans of freak-folk and psyche-country will find plenty to enjoy here, but Princess Diana is such an endearing album that it also merits a listen from any outsider who might be curious. While it may be fairly obscure as an art-form it is also so laden with catchy hooks and infectious, quasi-space-western energy that most anybody can find something to enjoy.  

7.3/10 (Stand-Out)

For more information on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale.

Label: Unique Records
Release Date: January 18, 2019

Review: “Tomb” by Angelo De Augustine

Tomb leaves the listener feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.

          When someone experiences a significant breakup or loss of a romantic partner, there is usually a rush of conflicting feelings.  Sometimes they manifest in betrayal and anger.  Sometimes there is only shock and an inability to process the event.  But more often than not, the most overwhelming feeling is one of deep mourning over the fact that something that was once good and beautiful is now gone.  The mind spins trying to make sense of everything; relishing memories, attempting to sort out how we got from there to here.  On the title track and album opener of Angelo De Augustine’s excellent Tomb, he captures this initial feeling perfectly, at once evoking remembrances of a beautiful relationship, wondering how it is now gone, “I walked into your life at the wrong time / never quite been perceptive of real life / it was not your fault or a fault of mine / but it’s hard to let you go this time.”  It is more than mourning; it is a search for justification, a deep and resounding “why?” 

            Part of what makes these lyrics so powerful is the instrumentation.  In a soft falsetto comparable to Sufjan Stevens (his label-mate and owner), Augustine’s double-tracked vocals hover over soft guitar plucking, with subtle piano underlying the second half of the track.  The result is melancholy, melodic, and incredibly captivating.  However, this is not your run-of-the-mill indie-folk record.  The following track “All to the Wind” calls to mind a McCartney-penned Beatles track, with snappy piano-pop chords and subtle guitar parts providing more layers.  “I Could Be Wrong,” sounds like something from the Postal Service or Sufjan’s Age of Adz, with a simplistic electronic beat and minimalistic synth textures.  This album is no sleeper; at no point does the instrumentation feel mundane. 

            What makes this album stand out is the way it intersects beauty and pain.  The record was written in 2017 in five days – December 20th-25th.  The feeling that it evokes is similar to what many feel around the holidays.  For a lot of folks it is a time of reflection and reckoning with one’s place in life within the context of somber beauty.  The chorus of a stand-out track, “You Needed Love, I Needed You,” captures this reflective mood, “Life’s been hard and you’ve lived a few / did I give too much love to you? / I’m sorry but it’s what I had to do / you needed love and I needed you.”  It’s heartbreaking in that it recognizes the situation, but does not desecrate the beauty that once existed in the relationship. 

            This song also exemplifies effective songwriting in its use of images that are specific enough to give the listener a clear picture, but also general enough that most people can relate to them without being generic.  “Back in my hometown looking for a silver Honda / but there’s too many all around / and I fear I’ll never find you / so I walk around.”  Everyone in the civilized world knows what a silver Honda looks like, yet it’s a specific enough image that it feels real, allowing the listener to attach their own associations to it and cry right along with Angelo. 

            While much of this album deals with heartbreak, it also goes beyond it.  That is to say, the breakup is not isolated; it is contextualized in the songwriter’s world.  Hushed acoustic track “Kaitlin” invokes memories of family, “Mother left you in the night / my father faded into the same light / now we’re both hoping to find someone.”  The record has wide vision and it immerses the listener deeply into its world. 

            Tomb leaves you feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.  It’s not panicky or hopeless, but an honest attempt to reckon with loss that is just as normal and human as it is to weep for things worth weeping over.  It is appropriately named, as it is a monument to something that was at one time good and beautiful that deserves to be remembered in the minds of the artist and listener alike. 

Score: 8.8 (Best New Music)

For info on how we score album see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Review: Central States EP by Mr. Golden Sun

There’s a certain kind of calm that can only be experienced on the open highways of the American Mid-West. Long before the journey takes its toll and the stir-crazy sets in there is a fleeting period of serenity that envelops travelers in this region. For only a moment the passenger chatter dies down, the traffic all but vanishes, and the landscape dissolves into green and brown pastels. The only sound is the rumble of the road. The world ahead looks open and endless. In the same car once filled with hectic energy there is, if only for this moment, peace.

Mr. Golden Sunhails from Kansas City, Missouri, well within the range that this pleasant phenomenon regularly occurs. Perhaps that is why the newest offering from the Matt-Hamer-led folk-rock project, Central States EP, seems to capture and personify that specific mood so perfectly. It’s an EP content to breath easy, immersing you in soft acoustic guitars, soothing melodies, and dreamy, atmospheric production. Make no mistake though; this is not a chilled out, stripped-down mood piece. Rather it stays in steady motion from opener Place & Timeall the way through closer The Comedian, never really gaining or loosing too much momentum, just maintaining a comfortable, sleepy pace; gliding like a car down an empty highway. 

It’s fitting then that Central States EP begins with the narrator breaking down on the interstate. Here on the standout track Place and Time, Hamer displays a knack for turning everyday inconvenience into something distinctly romantic. “I was sure when the chorus dropped/ That Kansas City was the will of God” he croons in a song that begins stranded on the shoulder of the highway and ends in a fulfilling marriage. Hamer’s storytelling is one of his strongest points, writing characters that feel real and personal. While rarely overt, there is also a certain spiritual undertone that helps connect each song on the EP, using religious images like “living water” and “pillar of cloud/…pillar of flame” while playing with themes such as rebirth. This helps Hamer frame his songs about everyday life in a loose, but powerful grand narrative. Nowhere is this more evident than in the penultimate track Goldfinches, another clear standout, where Hamer forsakes the slow drive of much of the album for a 6/8 waltz that sees him searching for the spiritual connection between the migration of birds and the language written in his own chest. It’s a track brimming with real yearning, easily relatable whether applied to the concept of God, some vague transcendence, or even just the search for meaning and connectedness.

Central States is not without its weaknesses, however. The consistency of the mood is both one the EP’s greatest strengths and also what keeps it from breaking much in the way of new ground in its genre. In six tracks, only Flyover Country really breaks the sleepy spell cast over the work as a whole, and though the song in isolation is a great track, its vaguely chip-tune synths make it feel just a hair out of place on an album that doesn’t give much context for that particular experiment. That leaves the song in an unfortunate catch twenty-two where it does provide a needed pace-change, but in doing so it also ruptures the immersive atmosphere set up by the tracks both preceding and following it.

All that aside, Central States does what it’s trying to do well. The mood is relaxing and pleasant, the writing is both engaging and thought-provoking, and the instrumentals shine when given their proper spotlight. While it may not be radically ground-breaking, it is still quite good within its folk-rock context and certainly merits a listen the next time you hit that moment of sacred peace on a cross-country road trip. One of the benefits of its mood and genre is that it is widely listenable and enjoyable across demographics, so most anyone can readily find a situation for it. For Mr. Golden Sun it serves as a nice foundation on which to build for the future; a solid first offering from a clearly talented songwriter.  

6.6/10 (Solid)

For information on what our album scores mean see:
https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/