More Than Any Other Day

Review: Ought – Sun Coming Down

We were a little late on the bandwagon, but Ought’s debut album eventually became one of our favorite releases from last year.  More Than Any Other Day ended up securing a spot on our Best Albums of 2014 list on the strength of the band’s fresh and energetic approach to post-punk, with Ought showing a deft touch in their ability to combine several disparate influences into a coherent and unique style.  Their follow-up finds the group settling into their sound, resulting in what initially seems like a more subdued effort.  Though Sun Coming Down does not immediately grab the listener like its predecessor, there are enough intriguing elements to compel repeated spins to discover the album’s charms and nuances.

While More Than Any Other Day was characterized by its barely-restrained chaos and the ability to shift gears at a moment’s notice, Sun Coming Down finds that restless energy pushed to just below the surface.  There are not as many sudden left-turns and fewer freakouts (and the ones that occur are pushed to the margins), as the band locks into grooves for extended stretches of time.  The two tracks that form the centerpiece of the album, “Sun’s Coming Down” and “Beautiful Blue Sky”, are perfect examples of this new approach.  The former is content to ride a slow burn and never fully release the tension created by its deliberate but incessant drive, while the latter floats over a more melodic version of the bassline of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”.

However, for many listeners, these are only subtle points of distinction–the band still features trebly guitars belting out dissonant chords and angular melodies that float over the top of the intricate interplay of the rhythm section.  Oh, and of course there is still Tim Beeler’s unique voice and his dramatic approach to singing, though he is now credited as Tim Darcy.  He still drops several brilliant non sequiturs that drip with irony and wit, such as the efforts to ape the banality of small talk in “Beautiful Blue Sky” with the repeated mentions of “Beautiful weather today”, “fancy seeing you here”, “how’s the family”, etc.  When juxtaposed against the chorus of “I’m no longer afraid to die, because that is all I have left”, the emptiness of the platitudes are even more evident, and Darcy’s ebullient reaction of drawing out the word “yes” in response enhances the effect even more.

But that may be just because “I’m talking out of my ass, because my heart is not open.”

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Review: Ought – More Than Any Other Day

Rust Is Just Right is not a very large operation, so we may overlook some albums when they are first released.  However, when we eventually catch up and listen to some of these records, we are not going to let the fact that we are ten months behind stop us from writing a review.  The point of all this introductory nonsense is to explain why we are reviewing the debut album from Ought in February of 2015 even though it was released in April of 2014, but the only necessary reason should be that More Than Any Other Day is a fantastic rock record that electrifies the listener with both its furious energy and its thought-provoking experimentalism.

The quickest description that I could use to describe Ought’s sound is “Alec Ounsworth fronting a Fugazi-inspired punk band”, but as you should expect, relying on the reductionist rock-crit namedrop cliche does not paint a full picture.  Tim Beeler’s vocals do mostly recall Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but that doesn’t cover the spectrum of emotions and contortions that his voice undergoes to match the twists and turns of the music.  For instance, Beeler’s use of dynamics in songs like “Clarity!” bring to mind the theatrics of the Violent Femmes, and that dramatic touch helps create a memorable, slow-burning epic.  He may not have the the most extensive vocal range, but his speak-sing style is effectively used in a song like “Around Again”, as when the band stops and Beeler asks “Why is it you can’t stare into the sun but you can stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?”

Musically speaking, Ought blurs the line between punk and post-punk, and in the process does an excellent job of making the lives of critics that much more difficult–in other words, it is not as easy to define the distinction as it is with, say, Viet Cong.  Ought often does engage in the full-fledged fury of a more traditional punk band, but they still allow room for experimental sonic elements that makes it hard to pin down to a single genre.  Consider the catchy and frenetic “The Weather Song”, which veers from a jittery verse into frenzied finish that is reminiscent of Wolf Parade (especially with the unusual presence of keyboards), as well as “Forgiveness”, whose use of a violin as a drone adds in a touch of the Velvet Underground to the band’s sound.  I am unsure what is more impressive: the fact that from song to song, it is almost impossible to pin down where Ought will go next, yet the band switches gears in a way that doesn’t give the listener whiplash, or the fact that despite the fact one can spot all these diverse influences rather easily, the band organically incorporates these elements into their sound so well that one cannot pin the “copycat” label on them.

Though only eight songs long, More Than Any Other Day is a dense but rewarding album that reveals itself on multiple listens.  Initially, the most striking element of “Today, More Than Any Other Day” is probably its dramatic tempo and stylistic shifts.  Then you may notice the odd lines of “I am excited to go grocery shopping.  And today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make the decision between 2% and whole milk” that is referenced in many reviews, but you go back and see that it’s not merely a non sequitur but in fact a riff on the previous line that “I am excited to feel the Milk of Human Kindness”, either an allusion to Macbeth or the Caribou album, and now you have to reconsider how all these elements fit together.  The good news is that the album is so great that it is worth the extra effort.