Ought Dares to Care

By: Scott Alic

“Today, more than any other day, I am excited for the milk of human kindness. 

And today, more than any other day, I am excited to go grocery shopping. 

And Today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make a decision, between 2% and whole milk.

And TODAY!, more than any other day, I’ll look into the eyes of the old man across from me on the train and say, ‘Hey: everything is going to be okay…’”

Ought, jamming.

Ought, jamming.

You could be forgiven if you thought that I pulled these words of positivity and hope from the latest Upworthy clickbait – you know that right now, your social media is awash with quotes incorrectly ascribed to Paulo Coelho, Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama, assuring you that beauty surrounds, and that that kernel of hope you keep within you, away from the increasing brutishness of this world, is worth fighting for. One place you might be less likely to find such earnestness and empathy is in your post-millennial playlists. Pop has always been good for delivering hooks, melodrama and big production, but good luck riding Beyoncé’s “surfbort” anywhere meaningful. Drizzy and ‘Ye may have added some darker introspection to hip-hop, but trap keeps thug posturing at the fore, when it’s not busy just being insane.

The infantile sing-along post-Mumford choruses of the Lumineers / Walk Off the Earth / turn on the radio, so aptly described as “Nuremberg-rock” by Annie Clark, may offer an illusion of “we’re all in this together” communalism, but is also the music Most Likely To soundtrack a summer of festival bro-grinding. Of course, it can be well-argued that this subgenre, so popular but just one sharp parody away from burial, can be traced to one song, which you may well remember the first time you heard it. When the Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” landed in your eardrums, approaching ten years ago now, it seemed beamed in from a planet of pure empathy: Win Butler was practically opening up his ribcage, pleading with you to palpate his awkward, squishy, all-caring heart. This openness, only months after being told that a pretty song with lyrics that went “Godspeed all the bakers at dawn / May they all cut their thumbs, / And bleed into their buns ’til they melt away”[1] would change our lives, this was too close, too heartfelt, and Goddammit who’s cutting onions in here? The band’s 2011 Album of the Year Grammy win was the first many (including, most famously, an indignant Rosie O’Donnell) had heard of them, and A&R men suddenly realized that there just might be money to be made in these “emotions.”

Since Funeral, Arcade Fire has put on stupid papier-mache masks and gone art-disco on us. A host of other bands are offering up poignant sounds, however, unafraid to put some feelings to tape: Vampire Weekend’s poetic “Hannah Hunt” was a scintillating centrepiece to their last album; Real Estate continues to refine their lovely suburban Zen koans; Phosphorescent gives good widescreen indie-country heartache; The War on Drugs convincingly build on early Arcade Fire’s majesty with its sonic washes. Mutual Benefit’s gossamer folk points to a new delicacy and gentleness in indie-pop (although I saw a Wednesday night NXNE crowd at the Horseshoe obliterate their beefed-up live setup with utter indifference and sheer conversational volume).

So many feelings everywhere on the airwaves and our hard drives, at a time when society sometimes seems mired in self-interest or downright reptilian at times – it’s almost as though we’ve uploaded our emotional bandwidth onto our devices. Which begs the question: where is this generation’s “What’s Going On,” the brave artist whose soul-baring statement might make us turn our gaze away from our screens and back to one another, helping us all tap back into our empathy, and leading us to a better world?

I dunno the answer to that one any more than you do, but I went out last Monday to see Montreal four-piece Ought at the Drake Hotel – to many, the epicenter of Parkdale, Ground Zero for Toronto hipsterism. The quote at the start of this piece is from the title track of their album More Than Any Other Day, which was released in April, and has drawn attention in the right places (okay, fine: Pitchfork — the album was Best New Track’d and Best New Music’d there in that month). The band is in the early leg of a tour that will take them all over North America and Europe for the latter half of this year.

Like Arcade Fire, Ought is made up of Americans (and an Australian) who met at McGill. They are signed to Constellation Records, whose roster past and present has consisted largely of instrumental bands whose musics convey an unusual amount of heft, with broad timbral and dynamic range – think the bass saxophone acrobatics of Colin Stetson, the Götterdämmerung epics of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the hope-amidst-despair protest-klezmer of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. Per the Constellation site, singer / guitarist Tim Beeler was studying poetry and folk music when the tumult of the 2012 Printemps d’Erable Quebec student general strike energized him, and pointed the way to new forms of expression.

Ought, album covering.

Ought, album covering.

Lyrically, Ought also mine diamonds of hope from the dark pits of an uncaring world, but place them in a decidedly less oppressive setting that recalls the jittery post-punk of Television; songs typically run five, six, seven minutes, yet retain a sense of economy. They build, develop, and sometimes veer unexpectedly in a new direction with energetic abandon.

On record, the most striking element is the plasticity of Beeler’s vocals, emoting dramatically and uncannily channelling David Byrne and Television’s Tom Verlaine on occasion (“Habit” and “Forgiveness”, respectively)[2]; often conversational rather than melodic, Beeler’s voice attacks sharply in one bar, and softens to the breathiness of, um, Stuart Maclean the next. He tests the possibilities of his voice, and the failed experiments point to the fallibility of us all. “Habit“ describes this tension between one’s need for expression and one’s limitations, and the catharsis that seems just out of reach, the pursuit of which can become an addiction. At times, the songs burst through into ecstasy, although the tension can be just as thrilling, as in the Fugazi-esque closer “Gemini.“ The lyrics, while not necessarily soul-baring, do feel directed, unfiltered, seldom ironic or frivolous, sometimes urgent, pleading: I need you to know these things, there’s no time to waste.

The Drake basement, while not large, was full of 20-somethings curious enough to venture out on a Monday night. Maybe it was post-weekend afterglow, but when the band eased into “Today More Than Any Other Day” with little by way of introduction, the attentive silence which immediately befell the room was an unusual and pleasant surprise. Beeler, looking like a gangly young Jarvis Cocker, held the audience’s attention for the duration of the 45-minute set, his bandmates offering little support in the visual department, but holding down the rhythm steadfastly, often providing a surprisingly danceable lock-groove throughout the set. Keyboardist Matt May, while low in the mix, added subtle chromatics; in the band intros later in the set, Beeler proclaimed May’s keyboards to be the “heart and soul” of Ought’s sound. Beeler occasionally strained to duplicate some of the album vocals, especially on second song “Habit“, and sometimes kept to a lower register, but the songs didn’t suffer greatly for it.

The band played six of the eight album tracks, extending the pummelling finale of “Gemini” into virtually a new song of its own (including what seemed like one of a couple forays into improvised lyrics). “Forgiveness” saw drummer Tim Keen pulling out a violin and adding some drone to the sonic palette. Non-album track “Waiting”, a last-minute addition to the set, and new song “Beautiful Blue Sky” were no less well-received by an audience that was never less than enthusiastic in its between-song applause, effusive in its end-of-show ovation, and left happy, by all accounts. Maybe that’s all we should ask of a rock show – to put a room full of people in better spirits.

Ought may not bring about a sea change in popular culture, but this young band have made some ripples at an early stage, by fearlessly addressing the beauty and terror of being alive. I’d like to think that these ripples might yet lead to a wave, ushering in a new honesty and earnestness to the musical dialogue.

—————

[1] From an album whose first track told us that “Caring is Creepy,” no less.

[2] Also: Greg Gano of the Violent Femmes, Soft Boys-era Robyn Hitchcock and Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson (“Around Again”).

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