Friday, October 23, 2009

Mason Proper: Olly Oxen Free

Olly Oxen Free is a difficult album to fully embrace and is by no means a whimsical or particularly easy listening experience. The second record from Ypsilanti-based band Mason Proper, it never settles on any particular musical style for long, instead trying and discarding approaches with a seemingly perverse glee. The result is an uneven album that is sometimes painfully lacking in focus and direction, but is at other times the work of a wonderfully experimental band just starting to find its voice. Though this album suggests that the band hasn't quite yet moved past a tendency to stand on the shoulders of a few musical giants, it nevertheless is a pleasantly eccentric record that becomes more palatable with repeated listens.
Initially it's tempting to dismiss Olly Oxen Free as a bastardized, inferior clone of TV On the Radio's wildly-celebrated Return To Cookie Mountain. Besides enlisting the help of Cookie Mountain producer Chris Coady, the band is apparently cut from a similar cloth on songs like "Only a Moment" and "Fog." Similarities to other artists are likewise either a clear indication of the band's influences or an amazing mind-fuck of a coincidence: Jonathan Visger's left-of-center vocal tendencies and the band's copious use of various studio embellishments on tracks like "Safe for the Time Being" and "In the Mirror" resemble outtakes from Radiohead's {Kid A}, while Visger's yelps that kick off "Alone" sound ripped from the Frank Black playbook. Whether it's homage or pastiche is up for debate.
Still, there are enough unconventional quirks here to show the band has creativity to spare and that their best work is yet to come. Mason Proper ambitiously covers a wide range of musical terrain, and in its best moments, this approach gives the album some personality and color. Opener "Fog" features refreshingly restrained keyboards and unassuming guitars, while "Point A to Point B" and "Out Dragging the River" are infectious pieces of indie pop, with nice harmonies, unobtrusive atmospheric flourishes, shimmering guitars and vocals that forgo the twitchiness that occasionally rears its spastic head. Musical and lyrical knives are brought out occasionally as well: the angular and piercing guitars of "Lock and Key" are accented by a few well-placed vocal darts, while "Shiny" features driving guitars - we'll let all the random blips and bleeps that add nothing to the song slide - and sneering vocals from Visger.
For the most part, these stylistic swings hold up and make for a satisfying, though sometimes overly derivative, listen. Though post-production clutter and studio embellishments doom certain songs - witness the remedial quasi-funk of "Only a Moment," complete with mildly distorted vocals and enough instrumentation to make the listener beg for a simple acoustic tune -Olly Oxen Free periodically succeeds because it never settles on any one musical concept for very long. If the album unintentionally tempts the listener to focus only on identifying the band's apparent influences, beyond such games a few intriguing tracks prove the band has originality to burn. It won't send listeners into convulsions of hysteria and likewise won't make critics swoon, but it's a solid enough effort from a young band. For right now, at least, that's good enough.

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