by Chiara Jurczak
The release of OK ORCHESTRA, the fourth and latest studio album by dynamic brotherly trio AJR, leaves much to be desired in terms of creativity, but still manages to produce a decent amount of head-shaking bops. As a whole, the project is indeed OK. Nothing stands out in particular as being out of place or unpleasant to the ear, but compared to the hits which the band managed to produce in their last two studio albums, the recently released tracks are bland and a bit uninspired.
The band, which identifies itself as “indie pop,” is known for its creative lyrics, original beats and melodies, and overall varied use of instruments and percussion. On any given track, one might find a trumpet giving way to a flute giving way to clarinet or a violin, or basically anything that makes sound. The title of the album certainly seems to match this orchestral theme. However, whereas in past albums these elements were just present in the tracks, without the artists necessarily having to point it out, OK ORCHESTRA feels like an excessive effort to make use of any and all things available, with no particular plan or organizational system in mind. From the very beginning of the album, the “Overture” serves as an instructional manual for the album, breaking down the drums, the melody, and showing listeners how it all comes together. Overall, the vibe is very much that of an opening number for a musical, preparing for what’s to come. Compared to the overture in their 2017 album The Click, however, OK ORCHESTRA relies too heavily on repetitive loops of segments of the songs on the album. Instead of the circular, whirlwind ride offered by The Click’s overture, this one seems to be a very straightforward, linear path which, while still enjoyable, is easily forgotten.
Regardless of this disappointing start, what saves the album, and what has been the reason behind AJR’s success, is their ability to produce at least a couple of head-shaking hits. “Bummerland,” the second track on the album, is the perfect unconventional summer hit that lockdown-wearied listeners want. The positivity that radiates through the song and the upbeat clapping which supports the entirety of the track couples perfectly with the almost self-deprecatingly funny lyrics. Instead of going for a conventional, happy-go-lucky song, the band knew how to find the balance between upbeat and slow. AJR’s lyrics have always been a great feature for listeners looking for something a little deeper to shout in the club (or in this year’s case, in their apartments).
Another trend in AJR’s music is their tendency to come up with incredibly nostalgic-sounding songs, both for the past and the future. Songs like “3 O’Clock Things,” “My Play,” and “The Trick” meld both melody and lyrics into a trip to and from childhood; although not particularly novel, this element rescues the songs from being completely ordinary by allowing listeners to connect on a deeper emotional level. “My Play” and “The Trick,” in particular, employ some ethereal-sounding backing “ah” tracks to create a sort of in-between world in which both listener and sound waves can travel.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Way Less Sad,” “Bang!,” and “Humpty Dumpty” bring some fast-paced action to the album by highlighting the brighter-things-are-coming theme present through both the lyrics and the cover art of the project. Like “Bummerland,” these tracks are more reminiscent of past AJR songs, but still fail to reach that legend status that some of their songs, like “Weak” and “Sober Up,” managed to achieve. Overall, none of the songs stands out particularly over the others, and they all blend into one general “happyish” sub-theme of the album. The beats are very repetitive, and even though a variety of instruments and styles can still be heard, they often don’t achieve the climax which they seem to be seeking. Rather, they combine into an overwhelming stack of sounds that essentially cancel each other out. Another song which fits this category is the collaboration with Blue Man Group, which just feels like a lazy attempt at a catchy song; the lyrics provide no support here, and by the time one has reached this point in the album, it’s likely they wouldn’t be able to distinguish between this EDM/pop mess and most of the other tracks. In their attempt to create an ongoing line of similar-sounding backing melodies, featuring old-timey jazz sounds, AJR has limited their range to the point of becoming somewhat boring and predictable.
The album ends, very disappointingly, on the track “Christmas in June,” a track which could be the definition of an endless climb. Instead of providing a satisfying climax to the project, much like the real Christmas does by closing off the year, this song feels like a falsely positive outlook on what’s to come, while doing little reflecting on the album itself. OK ORCHESTRA creates a weird paradox for AJR in that it feels like they’ve been too repetitive and lax in the creativity of their melodies and songs but simultaneously too overreaching in the topics of their songs. It’s hard to see the connection between the songs, despite all of them sounding the same (or close to the same), a fact which robs a disappointed listener of even finding redemption through a deeper meaning.
Overall, OK ORCHESTRA feels like an easily-forgettable filler album for AJR, a band that in the past have demonstrated their ability to push the limit in both sound and lyrics. Perhaps this is a reflection of the past year, which many people have found particularly uninspiring, but this project comes as a sordid disappointment to an expectant fanbase who was looking forward to a highly technical and perfected musical experience from the brothers.