Today! More than any other day! I am excited to tell you why I’m in love with Ought.
“If you believe in more than keeping time with life..”
I’ve been nursing this theory for, oh, I dunno, probably around 15 years, that all the very best music in the world is utterly ridiculous. Hell, if you permit yourself a naked lunch moment and take a close listen to what it is on the other end of your headphones you may well come to the conclusion that music itself is inherently ridiculous. Humankind’s never ending experiments in wrestling sound into structures it can easily understand, honing it in ways to maximise the emotive possibilities, bending it to his every whim and binding it to a physical disc or into a microchip – when you think about it that’s a fairly crazy endeavour in the first place. This may sound like the ramblings of some bedroom stoner staring at his own feet as if they’re some alien entity that has attached themselves to the end of his legs, but bear with me – if you really think about how oddly artificial and unnatural the whole enterprise of making music is for too long, never mind the assorted fashions and scenes andmeanings and socio-political theories we attach to it – you’ll soon find yourself realising how utterly absurd the whole damn thing really is. And once you’ve come to that conclusion, well, then it’s listening to nothing but field recordings for you. You’ll find yourself wanting to get back to enjoying nature’s own music, unadorned by ego.
Thankfully field recordings are fucking tedious so you’ll snap out of it pretty sharpish.
But anyway. I digress.
The level of ridiculousness in any given piece of music is of course dictated by the context it finds itself in. And a lot of the very best music often juts out awkwardly from the musical landscape that surrounds it in it’s given time. Right now, in this time where detached irony holds sway, when some of the smartest guys making music are busy making inscrutable and impenetrable drone and ambient works or cloaking themselves in reverb and hiding somewhere a step detached from their own music – nothing sounds quite as preposterous as straight up earnestness. Most artists don’t seem in the mood to commit to any kind of honest gesture without any kind of kitsch crutch to lean on at the moment.
Ought, however, have no such qualms.
They’re one of those bands that have developed whilst couched in a studenty political enclave – theirs being based in Montreal, in which they all live as expatriates and found themselves involved in the recent student protests, which they say was a big influence on their work – which is the kind of place where you may expect earnestness and excessive and un-self-aware emoting to be a bit more prevalent anyway. But as admirable as that kind of thing is (and how warm and nostalgic us older, more jaded heads feel when gazing upon such fare and remembering what it felt like to act that way) it does often sound kind of…well, embarrassing. There’s no getting around it, however open minded you’d like to be about it. It induces cringes whether you like it or not.
I’m not sure quite what it is about Ought that makes their music transcend that. But transcend it they do. They have their inherently silly moments, sure (the way singer/guitarist painfully drawls “Your forgiveness is a drug/that you take with a shrug” at the start of Forgiveness is cheesy enough to make you cringe so hard you’ll get a muscle cramp) but they also create moments of affirming, welcoming, inclusive, god damn urgent and vital music. It’s the infectious kind of ridiculous, like a giggling fit. It’s the kind of ridiculous it’s hard not to want in on. And you get the feeling they want you in on it too – look at that album cover, hands atop hands like a sports pep talk. Listen to them talk about a, “non-specific party in a non-specific city” or end the title track with an exasperated “Today/Together/We are all the fucking same.” They manage to communicate that communal DIY scene vibe without sounding overly pretentious or aloof, as if they want to expand it outwards and include as many people as possible.
Make no mistake though – Ought are a sketchy, patchy band and Today More Than Any Other Day is a sketchy, patchy album. That’s part of the DIY aesthetic they embrace – they apparently not only played their first gig but also recorded their first ep in the bedroom of their apartment. You don’t need me to google together a biography for you though – take a look at the video for The Weather song:
It’s a vague fuckaround of a video, just a bunch of dudes playing around with green screen and cheesy editing techniques like swirls and screen wipes. It’s goofy and looks it only cost a fraction more than it’d cost to buy their record. They’ve got a lot of rough edges and you get the feeling they like it that way. In terms of their sound it’s part of that sketchy post-punk indie rock lineage that started back in the 80s – there’s some Television in there and some Joy Division and at times they bring to mind the likes of Rites of Spring, Life Without Buildings, Flipper, Gang of Four, early Modest Mouse, maybe Orange Juice. However the one comparison they’ve had a lot is with Talking Heads. All they really share is some choppy guitars and David Byrne-esque vocals, both provided by Tim Beeler, but it’s enough to bring them to mind fairly often throughout the 8 tracks here. Beeler’s vocal style is at times like an alternate universe where David Byrne was born 20 years later and signed to Saddle Creek as a precocious youth. He has a similar way of dealing out simple statements expounded with the gravity of a reality-shattering philosophical treatise. The notes he aims for and just about hits on Habit sound a lot like him and the weird monologue skit at the end of Around Again could well have fit into one of the Fear of Music or Remain in Light tracks. But for all their influences they own their sound. It’s not beholden to anyone. The rest of the band play with that kind of wilfully ramshackle jangly alt-rock; deliberately sketchy despite clearly having the chops to make something more obviously accomplished if they so wished. It’s an affectation – they’re clearly talented dudes – but it;s one they wear well.
The opening run of four songs alone are the kind of calling card most bands would kill to have start a greatest hits collection. Pleasant Heart starts the record with stabbing guitars and keyboard chords, Beeler doing some hushed wounded crooning about, “living in a shell”. His tics, the whoops and the sharp exhalations of breaths, the vibrato, manage to make the jump from mildly irritating to infectious pretty quickly. Tim Keen’s drumming is understated but quietly impressive, Ben Stidworthy’s bass punching through the morass in that way that rock bass don’t really do anymore. The title track starts at a crawl and then gathers pace like a juggernaut, Beeler reciting the lyrics like a preacher giving a sermon filled with the mundane moments of any given day. The closing message – that we’re all the fucking same – may not be an original one, but then it’s something that bears repeating, loudly and often. And then there’s Habit – which could well be the best song I’ve heard this year. Maybe longer. Sure, it leans on those Byrne-isms quite heavily – and maybe a song about choosing to get out of your mind in lieu of doing something rings a little more uncomfortably true than it would elsewhere. But Beeler has a rare knack for appealing directly to the heart, for the gut, and mostly getting away with it without descending into mawkishness or sounding trite. “Is there something you are trying to express here?” “Is there a weight that you are trying to unload here?” And the way Beeler sings “…but it doesn’t heal you and it doesn’t make you smile” is one of those moments. You know the ones – hair standing on end, stomach doing a wee somersault. I immediately knew it was one I’d find myself singing along with, loudly, drunk as a lord in my living room.
Yes, I appreciate the irony there.
Whilst the second half doesn’t quite live up to the first – the uninspired funereal dirge Forgiveness stunts the momentum and later the meandering Clarity! does the same again – the impact is made by then. It’s clear then that what Ought have done here is not just recorded a few truly excellent songs – even more exciting is the sensation that they’re reaching for something else entirely. They’re stretching their fingers out, having the temerity to grasp for the stars. Though it’s not an album packed with optimism (the angry sneering “whole generation is lost anyway/what’s worse is they gave it away” revealing a healthy amount of cynicism beneath the surface) it does feel like there’s a shard of hope running through the whole thing. It feels like something not of this time at all – harking back to that great groundswell of interesting music back when indie was independent in America so beautifully captured by Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. There aren’t many bands these days who, as the Minutemen did back then, would make the kind of claim as the one that makes the title of that book. As the record ends with Gemeni, the albums most raucous track (it could have fit neatly on At the Drive-In’s Acrobatic Tenement) Beeler yelps WANT IT! WANT IT! WANT IT! over and over again you get the feeling that he may not be able to do so either, at least not without an embarrassed smile, but that in his heart of hearts he might believe it to be true. I imagine there’ll be kids out there for whom the energy of Today more than any other day will be like a light from up above, a Damascene moment for those who thought that music that felt like this didn’t get made anymore, and for them Ought could well be their life. And whilst they’ll let them down eventually – let’s face it, they all do sooner or later, don’t they? – they could well be in for one hell of a ride in the meantime.