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Album Review: OK ORCHESTRA (March 26, 2021) – AJR

By Evan Cardinal, Albright College ‘21

Apr 02, 2021

The Context – Today’s alt-pop scene attempts to strike a delicate balance by appealing to the often-contentious musical tastes of both Millennials and Generation Z. Artists and acts like Billie Eilish, twenty one pilots, and Wallows successfully bridge this small age, yet considerable cultural gap via delivering infectious, quick-hitting pop tracks equipped with relatable lyrics and savvy musical arrangements. Manhattan’s AJR is perhaps a leader in alt-pop’s dual appeasement of zoomer’s TikTok virality and Millennials’ penchant for Broadway-esque entertainment and production.

Multi-instrumentalist brothers Adam, Jack, and Ryan Met (hence the initials AJR) rose from charming street performers in Central Park and Washington Square Park to a sought-after indie group appearing on Good Day New York and VH1 after their track “I’m Ready” gained a cult following in 2013. AJR established their lively, fun-spirited DIY style on their 2015 debut LP Living Room (containing the instantly recognizable SpongeBob SquarePants sample on “I’m Ready”) but did not breakthrough as bona fide indie pop stars until their sophomore record The Click in 2017. “Weak” and “Sober Up (feat. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer)” quickly became platinum-certified pop anthems predating AJR’s first top-ten and highest peaking record in 2019’s Neotheater.”

The Content – AJR’s fourth studio album OK ORCHESTRA begins with a return to their patented introductory overture (a commonality in previous records but formally excluded on Neotheater) on “OK Overture”—an electro-pop/classical underscore containing namely instrumental snippets of later songs to illustrate the eclectic aesthetics of the record. “Bummerland,” an August 2020 single, is a retrospective track reveling in the limited pandemic-induced summer laced in a bubble gummy doo-wop bow. Trumpets starring in the bridge of “Bummerland” transition into a jazzy Tinseltown sound giving way to cursory thoughts on higher education, politics, and race on “3 O’Clock Things.”

The former album teaser “My Play” explicates the complications and coping methods for children of divorce in a provocative and impassioned manner. “Joe” is another reflective track based on one of Ryan’s childhood idols that is met with a dizzying mixed production. A Neotheater B-side comes in the form of the whimsically uninspiring “Adventure Is Out There” on OK ORCHESTRA. The February 2020 smash “Bang!” is a certified-platinum radio-friendly darling that contains a slinking klezmer-like key progression and bass-laden beat. AJR takes on an unsettling, heavily produced falsetto akin to Tiny Tim on “The Trick.”

The famed Blue Man Group lends percussion into the livelier and more thematic “Ordinaryish People,” which speaks to the common lyricism embracing the mundane of life. Like the crooning about socks in “Adventure Is Out There,” “Humpty Dumpty” relies on childish simplicity. “World’s Smallest Violin” is an upbeat, yet nondescript track lamenting about living up to family expectations and accomplishments. The final OK ORCHESTRA preview, “Way Less Sad,” is a more uplifting track focusing yet again on the normalcy in the face of physical and mental ills from the pandemic and cancel culture. “Christmas in June” and its equally sappy lyrics and production ends the record.

The Skinny – OK ORCHESTRA, AJR’s follow-up to the sharply written and produced Neotheater, suffers from an overtly sickly-sweet sound that fails to charm. Albeit the trio’s acute but rather straightforward messaging to remain calm and feel ok amid panic, the album flounders to yield secondary tracks that rival the production and intensity of the “Bummerland,” “My Play,” “Bang!” and “Way Less Sad” singles. Moreover, the orchestral allusion in the title takes on a secondary role unlike that of fellow alt-rockers Weezer’s esteemed and classically fueled OK Human record released earlier in 2021. The highly anticipated OK ORCHESTRA from AJR faceplants as it errs more as an annoying, simplified record than the previously fresh and engaging releases from the indie-pop group.

The Rating – 4.6/10

OK ORCHESTRA

  1. OK Overture
  2. Bummerland
  3. 3 O’Clock Things
  4. My Play
  5. Joe
  6. Adventure Is Out There
  7. Bang!
  8. The Trick
  9. Ordinaryish People (feat. Blue Man Group)
  10. Humpty Dumpty
  11. World’s Smallest Violin
  12. Way Less Sad
  13. Christmas in June

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