By Ian Krietzberg
The exuberance, vitality and storied lyrics of Broadway.
The layers, jazz and funk of a 1930s big-band orchestra.
Enormous sounds and themes so specific that they are automatically personalized.
All melded together and wrapped up with drum pads, synthesizers and driving beats to make AJR’s latest creation: “OK Orchestra.”
Stumbling onto a random Apple Music suggested album — “Neotheater” — several weeks ago led me to an unexpected goldmine. From that album’s first track, “Next Up Forever,” I was drawn to this weird band full of big sounds, ear-wormy melodies and hyper-personalized lyrics.
One listen through “Neotheater” and I not only felt like I knew Adam, Jack and Ryan, but I also felt validated: thoughts and feelings that I had never been able to put into words had just been sung to me. That feeling that AJR has created — their ability to sing such personal songs that instead of being thematically out of reach, they are bringing their stories closer to their fans — is such a unique and uniquely successful concept. And it is one that is delivered expertly on “OK Orchestra.”
True to its name, and in an even bigger way than in “Neotheater,” “OK Orchestra” is truly packed to bursting with new sounds. The synth-padded trumpets are present once again, as is a far more prevalent piano than we have yet heard, in addition to what does sound like a legitimate orchestra of strings amid a variety of drums.
For other artists, "packed to bursting" is rarely a good thing. In a lot of other packages, there is such a thing as too much music or instrumentation in that it takes away from the story of each song. But with “OK Orchestra,” in a uniquely AJR fashion, the heavily layered electronics and instrumentations serve to enhance the stories of each song, at times helping build to a bigger, strong sound, and at other times helping to create a fascinating juxtaposition between music and lyrics, a necessary (and often lacking) twist to your standard pop track.
The overwhelming auditory element or theme of this album is really one of exuberance. I know I’ve repeated that word but it’s really the first and strongest word that comes to mind. Beats and rhythms swing, demanding dance, and the orchestra and some of the specific instruments used just ring with a pure, joyous call.
But the lyrics, as per usual with AJR, have more of a bittersweet quality to them; how an album released in 2021 can create such a powerful sense of nostalgia is really beyond me, but it really achieves a point for sentimentality.
Ok, enough generalities. Before I get into some of the individual tracks (which I can’t not do), I have to call out “OK Overture.” AJR loves adding overtures to their albums, but this one really stands out. It sounds like they sampled every track, then shifted rhythms to combine disparate melodies, putting together a wonderfully strange introduction to a truly fantastic album.
“Bummerland” was released as a single off the album a little while ago, but it leads off right after “OK Overture” and it is truly anthemic. AJR has this capacity to take the tried-and-true anthem-formula that was perfected and popularized by the early 2000s pop-rockers and really do their own thing with it. Here, they have created this driving, joyous song that is especially poignant with a year of the pandemic behind us, a song that acknowledges the bad without complaining about it or wallowing in it; a message that everyone needs right now.
“Bummerland, here I am / and there ain’t no funner land / Bummerland, it’s kinda weird / but you’re only going up from here.”
“3 O’Clock Things” is a wonderful free-form, 3 a.m., drunken-styled rant. The “Neotheater”-esque choir and the 1940s-styled swinging, swinging jazz trumpets create this fantastic contrast between something that should be joyful but is actually real. I’m listening to this song and smiling wide, but they’re singing about human connection and the fear that comes with that; politics and the danger of taking political sides; constant fear of judgment and how to move past that. This is a real song and a real, relatable story with layers that go far beyond what is immediately visible.
“It’s kinda funny how I keep debating / if someone’s shy or if they hate me. Won’t you go running if you saw the real me?”
“Joe,” is nothing more or less than a testament to AJR’s talent and ability to take inspiration from old, (even outdated) music, and infuse it with a bit of modern, unique flavor and the kind of story that everyone feels and experiences but that rarely makes it into a song. The piano intro and driving melody are so reminiscent of Scott Joplin it’s almost surprising that it wound up in an AJR album. That rag-time feel coupled with some low-key existential lyrics hidden within the veil of reminiscing upon rough school-time memories is truly a stunning, surprising combination.
“I believed in god back in 8th grade / he could smoke an eighth on a school day / remember when you laughed at my last name / now I go by Met is that less lame, of a last name?”
I have to mention “Adventure Is Out There,” even if only briefly, as this is a song that is without question the quarantine anthem: “Holey moley, it’s a real do-nothing day / Adventure is out there, so why I am in here today.” That about sums it up. But they tie that sentiment in by literally — and I am neither joking nor exaggerating — singing about socks. Leave it to AJR to tell the most relatable story in the most unique, hilariously beautiful way possible.
And, to further prove this most-unique, most wonderful aspect of AJR — the aspect that tells the stories that we’ve all experienced but rarely hear — is the track “Ordinaryish People,” which requires no further explanation than this:
“Your happy friends call you depressing / ‘Cause you wonder why we’re all alive / Your downer friends think you’re too happy / ‘Cause you still celebrate sometimes / I guess that last time you had any fun / Was way back when you weren’t anyone.”
I think it’s clear I could go on and on about this album.
I mean, look at this: “I know a trick, do you wanna see / I can be anything that I pretend to be.” AJR just has such a unique way of looking at the world and that comes out through their lyrics, the way they approach the stories they want to tell.
OK Orchestra is utterly unique — a beautiful, surprising yet wonderful evolution from “Neotheater” while still being true to its predecessors. It is sprawling and powerful and musically compelling, but it is full of stories.
The greatest plague of most pop music today is the inherent flatness and fraudulence of the stories the songs tell. AJR is the cure to that plague. Their stories — and “OK Orchestra” is full of them — are what will keep me playing this album on repeat for the foreseeable future.