By M. Jarosinski
Author’s Note: The following was originally three separate blurbs written for the intention of appearing in a MJC’s Records of the Week article, but after carefully examining the combined length of all three of these entries and realizing that it was almost longer than any essay I have written in my college career, I decided to combine them into a guide of sorts for Ought’s 2014 – 2015 output.
For a bit of context, Ought is a Montréal based post-punk outfit formed in 2011. The band has released three albums, two of which are featured in this article. It is fair to say that the time period of the band’s career covered in this article was a period of exponential development for the band. For instance, the group garnered praise from the likes of Pitchfork as well as Rolling Stone. I’d say it’s also fair to say that Ought have become one of the forerunners of the modern post-punk movement and have shown to be one of the defining post-punk bands from Canada as of late, along with acts such as Preoccupations and Blessed. The following three entries serve as a guide to the band’s catalog during this period and should give unfamiliar listeners a little taste of the off-kilter world of Ought.
More Than Any Other Day (2014)
On their debut effort, More Than Any Other Day, Ought establishes their unceasingly energetic and eclectic adaptation of mythical post-punk of decades past.
I have found that when examining Ought, it is far too easy to confine the band just to the limits of what their very apparent influences are. Yes, I would say it is true, vocalist and guitarist Tim Darcy does have the same neurotic energy of many of his post-punk predecessors. His high strung delivery carries pieces of Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, Mark E. Smith, and David Byrne. It could also be true that instrumentally, Ought could be likened to acts such as Sonic Youth, Pere Ubu, or The Feelies. However, what truly has made Ought one of the most exciting post-punk acts of the last decade is their astute attention to detail and astounding execution. As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and More Than Any Other Day makes this very apparent very quickly.
“Today, More Than Any Other Day,” the second track of the album, should make clear to the listener exactly how boldly eccentric an adventure Ought is about to take them on for the next 46 minutes. Tim Darcy frantically exclaims quotable lines describing what to many might seem like mundane and ordinary tasks, my favorite of those being, “And today more than any other day / I am prepared to make the decision between two percent and whole milk.”
As much as More Than Any Other Day is shrouded in a sense of nervous fanaticism, the album also contains more than a few tender and bittersweet moments. Take for example the song “Habit,” a beautifully passionate and layered piece which sees Ought taking a much more measured and melancholic approach to their art punk chaos. In addition, the track “Forgiveness” is one the album’s many high points, featuring wounded and yearning sounding vocals along with an uneasy violin. This track’s more post-rock oriented sound serves as an intermission of sorts from the animated and vital approach of tracks like “The Weather Song,” which features bouncy instrumentation and a distinctly jubilant chorus.
Closing off the album is the track “Gemini,” which might easily be the album’s most aggressive and disarrayed cut. When Tim Darcy urgently barks lines such as “Good god, Jesus Christ / Tell me I’m alright, and see you’d yell / that you’re one of a kind, one of a kind,” in the song’s chorus, the listener can truly get a level of the skittish and perturbed energy the track is trying to convey.
In my own (somewhat biased) opinion, out of any of the post-punk bands of the last decade given any level of substantial attention, such as Idles, Protomartyr, or Parquet Courts, Ought might have been one of the most overlooked. Sure, it would be unfair for me not to mention the level of critical praise the band has drawn, and I am far from the only person, nor the last, to sing the praises of Ought. The reason why I find Ought’s output to be appreciable lies within its immediacy. Many legendary bands have had periods of adjusting and not every band’s debut is always a hit. What can be gleaned about Ought from More Than Any Other Day is that from their very debut the band has been presenting gripping and infectious post-punk. This sense of immediacy will resonate into more of Ought’s work to come and is what makes the Canadian band art punk giants of the 2010’s.
Once More With Feeling (2014)
Released in the same year as their debut, Once More With Feeling and its four tracks could be looked at as somewhat of a companion piece to More Than Any Other Day. However, the EP provides a bit more insight into Ought’s direction than just that. To begin, this EP is bookended by two very sentimental and somber tracks, “Pill” and “Waiting.”
“Pill” is definitely the more defeated sounding of the two, with Tim Darcy’s often ecstatic vocals sounding much more vulnerable this time through. “Waiting” falls into a somewhat similar but more passionate place in comparison. The track is driving and lively and Darcy’s vocals retain their restive punchiness on this cut, but a part of me still can’t shake that this track sounds a bit destitute. The lyrics help push this point further, featuring an emotional quality of longing and desire.
As a counterpoint to the tracks mentioned above, “New Calm Pt. 2” and “New Calm Pt. 3” are some of Ought’s most dissonant and zestful songs to this point. “New Calm Pt. 2” begins with a proclamation by Darcy: “I love this one!” before a sudden spurring of angular guitars. Highlights of this song’s bluntly existential lyrics include, “Hear me now that I am dead inside / That’s the refrain!” The track also features some quizzical questions brought to our attention by Darcy, including but not limited to, “Who put all the white keys on the piano?” and “Who invited Paul Simon? I didn’t… invite him…”
If that’s not absurd enough for you, you’ll probably enjoy this tracks’ spunky detereriaton both musically and lyrically. Later on in the song, the audience is treated to more gems by Darcy, such as him literally stopping his performance to pick up a call for someone wanting for him to buzz them into his apartment, and promptly returning and delivering this absolute killer of a line, “Now everybody put your arms in the air / That’s the generally accepted sign for not having a care.” There’s a certain motoric quality to “New Calm Pt. 2” that makes it particularly interesting sonically. It’s as if Ought had exclusively been listening to Neu! ‘75 for the last three months and had finally found a way to perfectly blend that album’s ethereal proto-punk spirit into their already flurried sound.
Where “New Calm Pt. 2” is driving and filled to the brim with overwrought dancableness, “New Calm Pt. 3” fills its six and a half minute run time with an apathetic dissonance. The guitars on this track serve almost exclusively to fill the track’s soundscape with feedback, all while Darcy delivers entirely spoken word vocals that compliment the conflicted and clashing instrumentation.
Sun Coming Down (2015)
Sun Coming Down, Ought’s 2015 sophomore effort, explores familiar territory as their debut but presents a new, much sharper coat of neuroses and bleak existentialism. The album opens with the jumpy and vibrant track “Men For Miles,” and while its chorus, with lines like “There were men for miles / And doesn’t it just bring a tear to your eye,” could be assessed at first glance as some sort of dadaist surrealism, the track’s true intentions are more of a lament or call for action regarding the gender inequity present in the scenes and festivals Ought has observed.
Moving on from there, “The Combo” is not subtle with its anxiousness. “The Combo” is personally my favorite Ought Song, and most of my reasoning for that comes from the track’s superbly taut second half. This track truly allows for the audience to get a taste of just how unhinged Darcy’s vocal delivery can become. Darcy spits out many of the lyrics in the song as a maniacal dance beat. Describing events such as entire families waiting in line, he accelerates to an almost incomprehensible pace towards the climax of the song, becoming a sort of post-punk auctioneer as the instrumentation whirls and twists into oblivion.
In addition to the wonderful tracks mentioned above, Sun Coming Down also features what is by far Ought’s most popular track, “Beautiful Blue Sky.” Personally, I am not sure exactly why this is their most popular song; nothing about the track screams commercial or indie hit (in a good way). “Beautiful Blue Sky” is a nearly eight minute odysey that may sound cynical to some, with its anomalous buildup to Darcy’s vocals. Darcy’s extraordinarily detached yet perturbed spoken word delivery could be easily interpreted as a spoof on everyday niceties. The audience hears during the track the same kind of small talk that could happen on any ordinary day: “Beautiful weather today, beautiful weather today. / How’s the church? How’s the job?” Truthfully, I have no answers as to what the track is trying to convey. What I do know is that the track sounds very human in spite of its often alien and distant atmosphere.
The track “On The Line” is surprisingly warm blooded, existing in a plane of both angular garagey choruses and slowed and strident verses. “Never Better” closes out the album and encapsulates Sun Coming Down’s excitable swagger, featuring driving and contorted instrumentation that provokes images both uncanny and frighteningly organic.