It's fascinating to see how this popular but hated band continues to fuel musical "debates", although of course that term is clearly not evocative as opinions are only one-sided. Although it's not today that I discover AJR's music, the significant buzz around the 3 brothers' band and this new album Ok Orchestra pushed me to seriously dive into their discography in order to make a second and definitive opinion about them. It's not a surprise that it was a thankless and terribly painful task. In fact I would have liked so much that the opinion of this new album would have been unpopular, which they would have deserved if it was the case, but unfortunately it is simply impossible. In fact, the opinions based on objectivity are so right, that they can not be contrasted. AJR have released since 2015 already 3 albums, crowned by the commercial success of the singles I'm Ready (2013), Weak (2016), Burn The House Down (2018) and now Bang (2020). While it is "remarkable" to see that AJR are an independent band artistically, composed of multi-instrumentalists who compose, write and produce in its entirety musically, on the other hand according to me it is possible that this is the main problem that explains their very mediocre contents. One could think that this is enough to get an honorable merit but finally it is far from being the criterion that gives value to the music. Personally I prefer to listen to an artist/group, who is just a simple performer, limited by talent and ability and supported by dozens or hundreds of collaborators, while proposing a pleasant musical content, than to listen to "entrepreneurs" who create their own boil. After all, it's an opinion like any other, since they have more than 10 million listeners per month, there is an audience behind it.
However I insist on these elements because it is still the problem of this new album Ok Orchestra and that in this configuration AJR will continue to go straight to the wall in my opinion. And sincerely I am afraid that they will never manage to fill these big limits, in spite of the experience and the maturity. Let's not be bad tongue and admit that Ok Orchestra shows a sincere progression in the globality of the content. We can say that it is "decent", but it was difficult to do worse in a way. AJR managed to evolve their formula by playing on a low contrast and a more lively musicality, but I think it is also the maturity and the passion that allowed them to really consolidate this evolution. Sincerely AJR seem to have fun doing what they do, it really feels, there is sometimes too much heart, yet their abilities do not yet allow them to make very good songs, nor to interpret them with talent.the album begins with a kind of "mini-medley" opening that they appreciate more particularly since except on their previous album "Neotheather" where they deprived themselves of it, it is a well known habit For those who are not familiar with AJR it is a kind of demonstration of what will be found on the album. Basically Ok Overture is appreciable in the sense that it is rather well mastered with some twists and details that allows the song to come alive. Like a storytelling, Ok Overture triggers the thematic of the album articulated on the orchestration. However, this never lasts too long as the album follows on a series of generic pop songs absolutely comfortable but inoffensive with Bummerland or 3 O'Clock Things which are precisely everything I dread when I listen to AJR. First of all the vocals are as hollow as an empty shell. The Doo-Wop inspired harmonies are appallingly boring and sound like commercials. It's so much this kind of radio pop music that I stopped listening to it one day. Their Electro-Pop/Dance-Pop bludgeoning is the main reason for this since it gives this feeling of extreme lightness. The melodies are systematically in-inspired and predictable that after the first listen you won't have any surprise, and finally it's a pity because they show at times that they are able to give a soul when they stray from their beaten tracks. Without forgetting this often grandiloquent musicality which gives the impression that you are stuck in a fanfare or a demonstration whereas you were looking to be quiet. It is with the counter example My Play that explains why this is a serious problem, as this song is probably one of the best on this album. For once they limit the "grandiloquent" aspect for something more intimate with the "Chamber" effects that allow both the musical rendering and the introspective writing to really touch the listener. That's when I think that even though it's a pop song like I've listened to a thousand times in my life, this one offers a pleasant face that pushes the mind to discovery rather than one of those repulsive songs. If we manage to attract Joe's absolutely hiritante melodies, the instrumentalization is rather amusing because it plays mainly on minimalism, which still shows that they are able to not offer an indigestible fireworks, even if it is not the case in the whole music. Imagine you are about to watch a real firework, but everything is condensed in 2 minutes and thrown in a dense and improbable way, like an exaggerated final bouquet, well it's the same when they abuse this. Unfortunately it's too often contagious in AJR's music like Adventure Is Out There, the example of a song with a progressive orchestration and intensity like a final explosion that we had foreseen from the first 30 seconds. Or on the end of Ordinaryrish People where the whole of the interpreters after 3 minutes are going to finish by a freewheeling closing with a multitude of bad choices which do not sound well to the ear.
The end of Ok Orchestra is also globally painful, except maybe Christmas In June which stands out with My Play as good songs, since we really feel sincerity through a catchy pop song. This time, AJR delivers a seductive orchestration and melodies. It's quite frustrating because the majority of the album is filled with mistakes or dismaying smugness, and we know they're capable of doing it. There is also World's Smallest Violin, a fun pop ballad where the 3 brothers manage to keep the perfect balance so that it never gets indigestible (except in the last 15 seconds... We can also talk about the writing, also dismaying on a great majority of the album. The complex nuance between "naive" themes and the way they are interpreted is what allows many artists who don't have a Leonard Cohen-like poetry to shine in a different way is something that few pop artists are lucky enough to master. I've heard a lot of comparisons to Weezer's Ok Human, which I don't think are really meaningful, and well, what Reeve Cuomo has done on this album is the ability to mix his writing talent with a much more emotional interpretation. For that he avoids the grandiloquent aspect of pop music for something a "Chamber" approach. When you listen to AJR most of the time, you get the impression that they are a bunch of musicians who get together on Sundays for fun, but it's very rare that I feel touched by the themes and the subjects. Yet this is what they try to do throughout Ok Orchestra but without success. To conclude, reducing the Electro-pop effect of their instrumentalization for a richer and more sophisticated orchestration have really allowed Ok Orchestra to correct a large part of Neotheater's defaults, hoping that they realize the limits of their formulas in the future.