By Eleni P. Austin
Although they were never commercially successful, bands like Television, Buzzcocks, Gang Of Four, the Feelies, Dream Syndicate and Gun Club, continue to inspire and influence generations of musicians. This is very much the case with Ought, a four piece from Montreal, Canada.
Guitarist Tim Beeler, bassist Ben Stidworthy and keyboard player Matt May emigrated from America to study at McGill University. (A much more cost-efficient alternative to American colleges.) Drummer/violinist, Tim Keen came all the way from Australia. The quartet came together during the Printemps d’Erable. (A series of student protests in Quebec, sometimes known as “Maple Spring,” a reference to Egypt’s Arab Spring).
In the midst of this thriving scene of underground politics, they began to live together in an apartment/practice space. After non-stop woodshedding and gigging around Montreal, Ought recorded and self-released an EP, New Calm. That caught the attention of Constellation Records.
Constellation is a small indie label based out of Montreal. They are anti-capitalist and anti-global. Once Ought signed with the label, they recorded their first full-length, More Than Any Other Day.
The album opens with “Pleasant Heart.” Skronky guitar, thumping bass lines and walloping drums orbit around the melody for a nearly a minute before Tim Beeler’s vocals leap into the fray. The lyrics are an economical stream of conscious rant. Just as the song appears to be winding down, an extended instrumental coda ricochets through the speakers.
Three tracks, “Today More Than Any Other Day,” “Habit” and “The Weather Song,” aren’t exactly aural portraits of the band, but they feel like snapshots. The title track begins tentatively, teasing out a series of deliberate guitar chords. As drums and bass kick in, the tempo accelerates.
Beeler’s frenzied vocal delivery pivots from deep cynicism… “We feel like we’re sinking deeper,”… to cautious optimism. “Today, more than any other day, I’m going to look into the eyes of the old man across me on the train and say ‘hey, everything is going to be okay’.”
“Habit” is the album’s most accomplished song. Snaking bass lines collide with fluid guitar riffs as Beeler launches into a lengthy diatribe. Here, he shrewdly equates society’s need to hope with drug addiction. “Well, there is something, something you believe in, but you can’t touch it and you can’t hold it.” Beeler’s righteous indignation is matched by Tim Keen’s sawing violin notes.
Finally, “The Weather Song” blends squirrely guitar riffs and stabbing keyboard fills with a frenetic typewriter rhythm. Beeler’s conversational tone belies his passionate quest for inner peace… “Tell me what the weather’s like, so I don’t have to go outside/And I’ll shut up and spend a week inside my head.”
Other interesting tracks include the searing “Forgiveness.” Over droning church organ and violin Beeler repeats this mantra: “Forgiveness is a drug that you take with a shrug.” Swirly and hypnotic, the instrumentation slowly gathers steam.
“Clarity” is powered by strafing, scattershot guitar riffs, pummeling drums and tensile bass lines. Beeler consistently challenges the status quo. “Did you get what you wanted, or are you ravaged?” The melody and instrumentation accelerate at a punishing pace reaching dervish proportions, before collapsing in a sodden, satisfying heap.
On “Around Again,” visceral riff-age connects with see-saw rhythms. Jittery and caffeinated, Beeler wonders “Why is it you can’t stare into the sun but you can stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe deep? A pin wheeling guitar solo sparks and flickers, accentuating his dismay.”
The album closes with “Gemini,” which includes this pithy, yet contradictory couplet… “I retain the right to be disgusted by life, I retain the right to be in love with everything in sight.” Beeler’s yelping vocals dovetail with the controlled cacophony of jagged guitar and a punishing backbeat: spiraling, chaotic and confrontational, it’s a tour de force.
Ought’s music calls up myriad antecedents. The angular complexity of Television, the nervous, nerdy noise of the Feelies, the intensity of the Buzzcocks, the semi-tuneful distortions of Gang Of Four, the drone-tastic energy of the Dream Syndicate and the wigged out psychobilly blues of Gun Club. The band is not explicitly political, but it’s clear that they feed off that energy.
Brian Eno, once famously remarked that the Velvet Underground’s debut album initially sold only 30,000 copies. But, everyone who bought one of those albums started a band. It’s likely that the same will be said of Ought.