Oliver Houston – Whatever Works

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It is unfair that this album came out while it is snowing in the NJ-NYC area. The feelings of happiness and living life are at their peak with this release as Oliver Houston put in a serious (yet obviously early) contender for the album to define summer 2017.  Whatever Works is the first full-length record out of these guys and it has been well worth the wait. The guitarist, Kyle, used to do his own thing under the name The Exploration which had (I believe unintentionally) built up a bit of a cult following. Various demos during this time period (including one single from a very early Oliver Houston) culminated in a final The Exploration EP that served as a goodbye to The Exploration as Oliver Houston took over, which is a full 3-piece project. The Dork Ages, an EP released by Oliver Houston in 2015, brought the feelings of happiness and summertime cheer wrapped up in a math-rock midwest emo package that they’ve clearly decided to build upon.

Pho sets the framework for the record, hitting many key components that make these songs what they are: a wall of sound with the feeling of being on top of the world right from the beginning, switching to a 7/4 time signature around the minute mark, and a guitar solo. Bernie gets going with the same feel, and I found myself already enjoying it (because I’ve loved the songs these guys have pumped out forever) but I felt myself getting skeptical about whether the songs would all blend together. Cue the section that starts at 1:15, which already allows breathing room and has marked itself individual from the first track, but climaxes with a “stay when you wanted, say what you wanted to know” in a similar same vein as the climax to Snowing’s Sam Rudich’s ba-da-das, as in, a vocal part on top of a more relaxed instrumental that you will scream along to at the shows and that you will scream along to when you are alone in your car. Tom Quad continues along hitting the same beats (all still in worthwhile ways) and has probably the most solo-y (read: not twinkly (I don’t even know what twinkly really means)) guitar solo, and it fits just as well as all of the twinkle. They also manage to squeeze in a few hits of a tambourine, and I’m always a fan of alternative instrumentation.

Concession already has my attention with the use of a what I assume is a vibraslap and background vocals before it fully kicks in. Lots of layers and groove cement it as a standout, but then comes the middle section. Oliver Houston fully reprises what was, in my opinion, the best part of their EP The Dork Ages. A magnificent layering of a lead guitar part being played in 6/4-8/4-6/4-12/4, with another guitar part layered on top in straight 6/4, yet it doesn’t feel jarring. This is the kind of thing that will make any fan of The Dork Ages geek out in a big way, so if you haven’t already listened to The Dork Ages, I recommend you check it out before getting to this record. This sort of thing doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like it to, the last time that I can think of it happening was Mamiffer’s Flower of the Field II after Flower of the Field (which already implies something in the name).

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Tough Luck starts less full blast, establishing a groove and gradually building off of that (including backing vocals that are used sparingly through the album which helps set it apart). When it gets going, it probably hits the twinkliest part of the album, I even find myself singing along to the guitar part (although I say that as someone who, as I said earlier, doesn’t fully grasp what twinkle is supposed to fully mean in the context of a genre, so take what I say with a grain of salt). Milk Door sees them playing around with the calmest sense of space on the record in an almost post-rock like sense (but still firmly in the sound that is Oliver Houston).

Whatever Works (the track) and Reprise continue to show that this band knows how to end an release. Whatever Works kicks off with a 6/4-8/4-6/4-6/4 introduction before establishing itself in a 6/4 groove to be jammed on, still with plenty of forward movement, for the majority of the song. Unlike The Dork Ages (the track), Whatever Works reaches a chord driven climax by the end. This works well, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t truly miss the alternative instrumentation they introduced on The Dork Ages (the track). That track focused around an acoustic guitar and ended up using tambourine, toy bells of some sort, and a French horn — and it was beautiful. Whatever Works has just come out, and I find myself listening to the final two tracks constantly (on top of the rest of the album), so I think my missing of the alternative instrumentation is simply me complaining about how the band is no longer catering to my specific biases (i.e. alternative instrumentation). The tracks are still killer enders.

This record makes you want to yell along, jam out, and just feel happy. Oliver Houston has given us the opportunity to learn all of the words before summer hits, if you know what I mean — woo!

Molly Joyce – Lean Back and Release

Spoiler Warning: The Leftovers season 2

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Michael Hamad said in his article, “Joyce chases intersections between the seen and the unseen, how solo performances aren’t really solo performances, the way backing tracks push back on a performer, and maybe a few other ideas.” When I went and saw the record release to Vicky Chow’s A O R T A, it was a pleasure to see her perform the work composed by Joyce entitled Rave (personally it was my second favorite piece of the album behind Vick(i/y)). Hamad’s words resonate with me as I think back to that performance. At first, I was put off by the use of a backing track; I was wondering to myself why they didn’t just have another performer join Chow on stage. By the end of the piece, I had been so blown away that I hadn’t thought back to it until I read this article by Hamad. I’m now putting together that this was intentional by Joyce. And you know what? That’s awesome. This is a space that, not only do I not see currently being pushed (at least within my limited sphere of experience) but I was also so quick to dismiss it of being a section of music that should be explored (see: my internal reaction at Chow’s record release). I don’t want to stay on Rave too long as I’m excited to get into Lean Back and Release, but I’ll just say that the melody line that appears at around 7:49 in the higher register of the piano is such a resolving climax that gets me amped up every time I hear it.

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Lean Back and Release: Joyce’s first release to her name on New Am Records (of which everyone should subscribe to). Right out of the gate the solo violin came out at a piercing register, yet I found the melody to be catchy enough to be a theme (that I do not believe ever gets revisited). Very quickly the piece settles into its groove with the backing tracks that I am now familiar with Joyce using. Around the 3 minute mark, the backing track reaches a point where it is as prominent as the violin, and in doing so, echoing Hamad, pushing back against the performer. It is only after that part dies down around 4:15 when the violin is back in the spotlight do I first realize how far down the pitch has traveled (even with the knowledge that there is a descending theme at play). During a relisten, I reached that part and then immediately restarted the piece to clearly hear how large the difference is, and it is enormous. When the piece seems to be centered around descending through these tones, I expected for a more blunt and in-your-face way of accomplishing this, but this was fluid. As an aside, within the fiction reading that I do, there is a ton of work that sets out to accomplish something, but the characters are just a vehicle. They don’t feel real or have emotions that resonate deeply, and it becomes obvious that they are a vehicle for whatever the author is trying to accomplish. Even if Joyce set out with the intention of this descending-of-tones piece, it didn’t feel fake. It didn’t feel like this composition and instrumentation was merely a vehicle for that intention. This is something she pulls off again with the following track.

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Shapeshifter. Every time I put this on, I get lost in the piece and don’t realize when the backing track has taken on long tones and the live violin pizzicato. That to me is a sign that this piece is just as fluid as the last, able to showcase the transfer of control without being abrupt in the manner by which it is presented. The ending, starting at around 5:55, is very emotional to me. When the live violin has conformed to the pizzicato of the backing track, it’s almost like witnessing a successful mind control after hearing the violin resist during the previous minutes. The first piece of a cross-media parallel I can think of is the end of season 2 of The Leftovers, specifically around 38:30 of the finale. Evie is revealed to be a part of the Guilty Remnant and the screen just focuses on the emotional turmoil that her parents are going through, all sound being cut except for Max Richter slowly building behind them. To her parents, it appears that the Guilty Remnant have brainwashed her, and to see Evie just staring away from her mom, not caring at all, not speaking, dressed in all white, smoking… It evokes the same emotions that I felt at the end of Shapeshifter. Those were season-long emotions that were built up over time and reinforced across multiple mediums, and for Shapeshifter to hit those same emotions makes me very excited for Joyce’s future output. Whether or not my own perception is skewed by having felt those emotions and being moved by them is up for debate, but regardless, this EP was great. Not only was it great, but it doesn’t sound even slightly similar to what was accomplished with Rave, which means I have no worries about whether or not she will be a one-trick pony (not that New Am has ever put out stuff by any such people before).