Ought’s debut full length on Constellation Records isn’t breaking any new ground but its playful and energetic songs are a welcome antidote to waves of ironic indie rock. The quartet’s angular guitars and syncopated rhythms call to mind post-punk and the more subdued strains of post-hardcore, yet each song reveals a new facet of the group that can’t be summed up so tidily. Their style is remarkably coherent for such a young band, with deceptively simple arrangements that build in complexity.
Drawing inspiration from the student strike of 2012 as well as the broader underground arts of Montreal, the casually observant lyrics are unmistakably affirmative and often quite funny. The impact of months of protest is hard to overstate, the effect of nightly coming-togethers can’t help but change how we think about the act of coming together to make art.
Montreal has a long history of social movements, and perhaps because of this sensitivity it has also long been a nurturing environment for avant-garde music. Like Dischord in DC or Saddle Creek in Omaha, Constellation has documented the Montreal scene to such an extent that the two can be hard to separate. Though probably best known as the home of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and associated projects, Constellation’s roster is as diverse as the city it calls home. To the casual observer, Ought may seem much more of a “traditional” band than Constellation have a reputation for, but in fact the label has released rock records since the very beginning. That first release was from label co-founder Ian Ilavsky’s Sofa, a band that shared some of the same musical reference points as Ought.
More recently, the label has picked up young artists who have made a splash on the local loft scene with limited CD-Rs, cassettes or digital releases. As with Pat Jordache before them, signing to Constellation afforded the opportunity to produce a record of higher quality. Their rather tightly defined soundworld benefited from a week in Thee Mighty Hotel2Tango analog studio, particularly the guitar tone and vocals.
The LP is instantly engrossing from the opening few bars of “Pleasant Heart.”
Layers slowly build, the counterpoint of the guitars and interplay with the rhythm sections almost recalls Battles. Guitarist/vocalist Tim Beeler’s delivery is often a kind of sing-speak, and combined with the banality of some of the lyrics might initially seem unserious. It was wise decision to open with a song with more intense and emotional vocal delivery.
Much of what’s endearing about the rest of the album isn’t so direct, but draws you in enough to discover its charms. A line like “Forgiveness is a drug/ that you take with a shrug” could very easily sound ridiculous, but against the dissonant string drone and in Beeler’s sincere wail it manages some real depth. Ought’s jagged lines are smoothed out by a loose energy and underlying soulfulness that so many lesser groups lack.
Ought draw on minimal elements, but they seem to understand that its all in what you do with them, in how they come together to produce something greater. They manage to be playful and funny without being foolish, without sacrificing their seriousness. Unfortunately it often seems that society forgets the important role humor plays in our lives. An upbeat and uptempo track like “The Weather Song” can proclaim “we won’t take it anymore” and be heard, without aggressive posturing or theatre. Following the memorable slow jam “intermission” of “Forgiveness,” the final three songs explore more dissonant and chaotic territory, always anchored by a solid rhythm section. The post-punk tag probably won’t go away any time soon, but I hear as much Fugazi as I do Gang of Four.
Beeler’s clever lines may illicit laughs but also reward deeper contemplation. His personality as a vocalist likely won’t be to everyone’s taste. At times I even found myself wishing for some Wolf Parade-style dual vocals to vary it up. But the singular nature of Beeler’s style, and the generally stripped down nature of the band works with that singularity. More Than Any Other Day is sure to find an enthusiastic audience outside of Montreal’s underground.