Think about everything you hate about AJR. Their overblown production, their awful writing, and their inability to convey emotion. How bad The Click was. How bad Neotheater was. Hell, how bad the singles for this album were. Now, forget every last one of your past experiences with AJR and listen to this a couple times. No, you may not like it. No, they haven’t solved every problem. But I think that OK ORCHESTRA is a huge step forward for AJR, and I think you’ll agree.
AJR is an indie pop trio consisting of brothers Adam, Jack, and Ryan Met. The band, which hails from New York and have been performing since childhood, writes and produces all their music in their living room apartment, and they are known (online, particularly) for making bad music. Really bad music. With a collective user score of 28 on this site, AJR gets a LOT of hate. Whether they deserve it or not is another debate, but their music is not anything a critical listener would exactly eat up either. Featuring consistently subpar writing, squeaky clean, sterile production, and (often) an inability to portray real, human emotions through their music, AJR is not a good band by most metrics. In fact, in the opinion of many, they’re quite a bad one.
Despite these issues and more, I have never been able to hate AJR. Since I discovered their music in 2019, I’ve always liked or at least tolerated the band’s flair of blown-out electropop, and even as I grew into a radically different era of my music taste, I still could never get myself to dislike AJR. I do feel like I was a bit ahead of the curve on this hot take at least, because AJR has at least partially solved each of the problems listed on their newest LP. OK ORCHESTRA, while not perfect, is AJR’s best album by a long shot, and I think it foreshadows an upward trend for the trio’s music going into the future.
AJR opens their album with an overture, which effectively serves as a track that blends elements of all of the tracks on the album -- a snippet, a melody, a beat -- into one song. To me, the overture is a uniquely AJR idea, the reason being that AJR albums are often so unkempt and thematically inconsistent that the overture helps keep it all together (as it has on three of their four albums, Neotheater being the holdout). It wouldn’t work on most albums, but it works in AJR’s context, and it works better than ever on OK ORCHESTRA. Yes, it’s all over the place and doesn’t keep a consistent melody throughout its entire four-minute runtime, but it’s not exactly supposed to be linear either. In fact, “OK Overture” is actually one of the best songs off of this album. Whereas AJR’s last overture on The Click, while enjoyable, featured questionable production and a notable awkwardness and instability, “OK Overture” keeps that same jumpy quality while having exponentially better production and much more cohesion.
The track starts off with an original melody, sampling bits, instruments, and vocal snippets from other tracks on the album. As the song transitions from one beat to another, building itself around a melodic line or a chorus or a bar, the track manages to pull from every other song on the album while still maintaining smoothness and originality, a very impressive feat in its own right. The track moves into a fully original section around 3 minutes in, featuring sparse piano orchestration that builds up in a very Disney-esque manner, climaxing into the track’s final section, a sky-high, gargantuan, frankly gorgeous display built on short samples of the album’s 12 tracks. It’s absolutely beautiful, and kicks off AJR’s most creative and unique album yet -- even if you wouldn’t be able to tell by the first couple tracks.
Last-minute note: right before the publication of this review, AJR released the music video for OK Overture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25HfpOPXKWY).
It’s not the most impressive video, but it shows where the samples on the album come from, and I’m honestly even more impressed with the song than I was before. Watching the video made me realize that I didn’t even recognize around half of the samples on the overture -- they’re integrated really, really well to create a track that blends the elements of others and still stands on its own. Pretty damn impressive, honestly.
The next track is “Bummerland”, the album’s second single and its most poorly received. Everybody seemed to hate this song, which is reasonable as it’s basically the musical version of that one quote from the movie Sing (https://youtu.be/bCOc7VCSox4?t=41).
I absolutely should hate it, and I tried to hate it because of how bad I perceived it to be. But I don’t. The melody is decent at the very least -- even if the cheesy synths are a bit annoying, and the overblown percussion and “aahhhh”s that have plagued AJR’s music in the past make a return as glorious as “Birdemic 2: The Resurrection”, the song is at least catchy and pleasant in my opinion (maybe it’s just that I’ve always been able to tolerate AJR’s past musical quirks). The sentiment isn’t all that horrible either -- AJR may not be able to convey human emotion like a normal, feeling adult (on this track at least), but it’s at least a little bit of an improvement, and the beat is fun. Don’t kill me, but this track is alright -- it’s classic AJR, which to your dismay/excitement, doesn’t show up too often on this album. It’s probably my enjoyment of classic AJR that carried my enjoyment of this track, but either way, we’re only going up from here!
“3 O’Clock Things” is the next song on the album, and it’s also pretty classic AJR, but it’s pulled off dang well. When I say “classic AJR”, I mean a lot of the cliches -- vague attempts at relatability that are not relatable in any way, political sentiments that don’t actually express politics, and a melody and structure that remind me of one of their past tracks (in this case, “Break My Face” from Neotheater). Yes, the lyrics are not great, but it’s made up for by the fact that the beat goes absolutely stupid. The trumpet line on this song, although it falls short of their best (“Burn The House Down”’s trumpet is infectious), is still pretty awesome, especially at the final buildup around 3:30 into the song. It’s one of the most fun songs just because of the instrumental, and the line “if you’re fking racist then don’t come to my show” makes up for every bad line on this song and then some.
“My Play”, a track about the divorce of the AJR brothers’ parents, sticks out on the album like a sore thumb -- absolutely nothing on OK ORCHESTRA fits this track thematically, lyrically, or even instrumentally to an extent. Even for a band with as little cohesion between their tracks as AJR, “My Play” really doesn’t fit. Despite this, though, it manages to dispel two AJR notions at once -- that they can’t convey human emotion and that they can’t write for crap. This is both one of AJR’s most genuine and one of their best written tracks -- ever.
Normally, when AJR tries to make a sad song, they will play by a very specific playbook. Take the saddest tracks on both of their past two albums -- “Call My Dad” on The Click, and “Turning Out pt. ii” on Neotheater. Both of them are around the middle of the tracklist. Both of them use very spare instrumentation (in “Call My Dad”’s case, none). Both tracks are sandwiched by unnecessarily happy songs, to soften the blow a little. Both tracks take the perspective of some young person that has just gone through some traumatic event -- either a party-gone-wrong or a breakup. And, finally, both barely feel genuine. However, AJR barely plays by these rules with “My Play”, quite possibly the saddest song they’ve ever written. It’s the fourth track on the album, the instrumentation is strikingly similar to typical AJR production (even if it’s not totally similar), and it’s not sandwiched by particularly happy tracks (although not by sad ones either). This track takes the perspective of a young child, but it feels like it has the right to. And, finally, this track is absolutely genuine. You can hear it in Jack’s vocals during the chorus. You can hear it in the lyrics. This song is undeniably real, and it’s all the better for it.
“Joe” is one of AJR’s most creative and unique tracks, but I don’t use any of those descriptors positively. In fact, this is the worst track on the album, and it’s not even close. It’s awful.
First off, the beat sucks. It’s centered around classical-esque piano arpeggios paired with beatboxing, and those things go together like Oreo cream filling and spray cheese, especially when backing Jack’s strained vocals on the chorus. The writing is also pretty unimpressive (“Every time she laughed it would feel fake, but you could make her laugh in a real way”, “I thought you'd reply, you just thumbed up”, “Maybe you'll call me up and you'll tell me how cool I got”, you get the idea). The melody that the track is also built around is quite annoying in my opinion, and altogether, it makes for a song that has few redeeming qualities other than catchiness (which isn’t even a redeeming quality for such a bad song). I guess we can just be glad there’s only one song this bad on the album -- it could’ve been much, much worse.
Thankfully, one of AJR’s worst songs is followed up by one of their best. “Adventure Is Out There” features a beat that doesn’t try to be big, unlike a lot of other AJR tracks. The instrumental is pretty basic here, especially for an AJR song -- it features little more than a guitar line, as well as some complementary instruments, pianos, percussion, and vocal snippets that build the track up throughout its runtime. Thankfully, every bit of instrumentation on this song is great -- the guitar line is catchy and captures the mood of the track very well, and the rest of the instrumentation only serves to complement. The structure of the song is extremely gratifying, and it is able to build up and progress more effectively than almost any other AJR song I can think of. No, the lyrics are not good. Every single verse is about socks for some reason, and it makes for some of the consistently stupidest lines in this entire album. However, the instrumental on this song is so good and the melody is so solid that the subpar writing can basically be ignored, and in my opinion, this is one of AJR’s best songs solely because of its instrumental. If AJR could just tack on slightly better lyrics, this song would be near-perfect.
I don’t know how much I have to describe “Bang!”, as you’ve probably already heard it. It’s their biggest hit ever -- it peaked at number 8 on the Billboard 200 and has been used everywhere from Apple commercials to professional baseball games. I know you probably already hate this song. When RiskR said “The groove sounds like it’s going at the pace of a man limping through mud,” they weren’t wrong. The track sits at a measly 70 beats per minute, which is ridiculously slow for a pop hit, and it’s easy to tell. This song feels almost artificially slow, but in all honesty, I don’t mind too much. I still like this song at least mildly -- the production is pretty great, especially the circus-like instrumentation during the chorus, and even if the writing is vaguely awful, AJR could do much worse. The song is just catchy, really, and even if it’s unremarkable in most aspects and doesn’t fit the tracklist in any way, it’s still a pretty decent track that at least I can vibe with.
To say the least, “The Trick” is one of the most interesting tracks on OK ORCHESTRA, and in AJR’s discography as a whole. The track is a duet between a pitch-shifted AJR member/uncredited vocalist, and while it could be a sample, the writing feels too AJR-like for it to be one. The vocalist, a female-sounding singer with a somewhat warbly voice who feels pulled from a different era, sings with Jack on this cut, and the song is absolutely beautiful. The instrumental is great -- it’s centered around the strumming of a ukulele during the verses that blossoms during and post-chorus into a gorgeous, poignant harmony that almost seems to draw from Neotheater’s Disney vibe, but in the best way. Lyrically, the song is centered around creating fake versions of yourself to boost your perception in the eyes of others, and wanting to stop but not being proud of yourself as you truly are. This song fits the AJR “sad song” stereotype much better than the other sad songs on this LP -- it’s around the middle of the tracklist, the instrumental is often sparse compared to AJR’s other work, it’s taken from the perspective of a child (at least it seems to from the lyrics), it’s sandwiched between two happier tracks, and yet it still feels at least somewhat genuine. No, it’s nowhere near the level of a “My Play”. But the production, instrumental, and lyrics all being a step above average for AJR add up to a track much better than a lot of AJR’s past work, and one of their best songs ever.
“Ordinaryish People” stands out in that it is the sole feature -- this time, from Blue Man Group. I’m not joking. They barely have a presence on this song -- about as much as the New York subway guy has on “Bang!”, which may be a relief or disappointment depending on your point of view. The song itself, though, is just alright in my opinion. The lyrics are incredibly straightforward -- on this cut, Jack sings about not fitting the molds and stereotypes that others around you hold you to. It’s very tell-not-show, and even if it’s not AJR’s worst writing, it’s not exactly poetry either.
This song has the circus vibe of “Bang!” and the horn line of “3 O’Clock Things”, although it’s inferior to both tracks in those regards. However, one thing this song has that other tracks don’t is a roughly 45-second instrumental outro in which the track’s instrumental and melody are played around with -- instruments come and go frequently, and the melody even flips at one point partway through. Although this part is produced pretty well, and it’s enjoyable, it still feels a bit awkward and didn’t have to exist. I feel the same way about the track itself -- it’s an enjoyable song, but I feel like most of this track has been done better by the band, and the song as a whole just feels a bit awkward. It doesn’t raise my opinion of this album, but it doesn’t lower it either.
“Humpty Dumpty” is actually one of AJR’s saddest tracks lyrically, if not their saddest, despite the instrumental not having the normal signs of an AJR sad song. There are lyrical references on this song to intense, debilitating loneliness, panic episodes, and even suicidal thoughts. However, in a similar way to Justin Bieber’s “Lonely”, it is betrayed by the absolutely stupidest chorus of all time. I have no idea who was in the boardroom (or the living room, in this case) and approved using a reference to a nursery rhyme about an egg that falls off a wall as the centerpiece of one of the band’s saddest songs. I mean, on one hand, of course they did, it’s AJR. But, on the other hand, why? Other than that, though, this is a pretty good song -- the writing is pretty good other than you-know-what, and the beat is pretty catchy and well-produced, but the hook makes it much worse than it deserves to be. This could’ve been one of AJR’s best songs. Of course they had to ruin it like this.
“World’s Smallest Violin”, the following track, worried me greatly when the tracklist was put out -- I immediately thought of “I’m Ready”, the only other AJR song (that I know) that is named after a Spongebob quote. Probably uncoincidentally, it’s also AJR’s worst song by a very, very large margin. Thank God, this doesn’t feature any Spongebob samples, and the song isn’t even that bad. Lyric-wise, the song is basically that one nigahiga video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN2WzQzxuoA)
-- it’s about having problems that mean nothing on a large scale but that still get you down. The message of this song is effectively that someone has got it far worse than you, but that the small issues still hurt. The beat is pretty good -- even if it doesn’t fit the song lyrically, it still is a vibe, and the instrument switching works well and doesn’t feel as much like a gimmick as it does on Bummerland. The way the beat builds up in intensity around the end and closes abruptly is great, and it’s easily my favorite part of the song.
“Way Less Sad”, most famous for being lauded by Brad Taste as the greatest song ever created, is actually pretty solid. The melody is pretty damn good, and it’s incredibly catchy -- something AJR has always been able to do well. Lyrically, the song is alright, centering around not yet being happy but being “way less sad”, as the title implies. It’s not AJR’s writing peak by any means, but it’s fine by their standards, and the beat makes up for whatever shortfalls there are in the writing, for the most part. The main pain point of this instrumental for me are the “hey hey hey”s during the chorus -- they just could’ve been deleted and the song would have been way less dorky (pun intended). Other than that, though, the instrumental is pretty great, featuring a pretty simple, low-pitched piano backing, horns, and more. It has a similar vibe to AJR’s past “overproduced” music, but it doesn’t feel as cluttered as songs like “100 Bad Days” (which I still love, by the way). Around 2:15 in, the track transitions into a bridge in which autotune is used pretty interestingly, and I thought I should touch on it -- although it’s a little bit awkward, it fits the lyrics pretty well in my opinion, and adds a unique touch that almost feels like sleepy hyperpop to me (but not in a bad way). This is the way that AJR’s music should be produced, in my opinion, and although the track isn’t a masterpiece, it’s still great. I can understand what Brad was getting at.
Closing out this album is “Christmas In June”, and I don’t say this lightly -- this is, quite possibly, AJR’s best song ever. This song’s melody is immaculate, and it conveys the message of the track extremely well -- it feels extremely human, even a bit poignant, and yet simultaneously hopeful and happy. The track’s lyrics, about having to balance a career in music with a relationship with a significant other, is some of AJR’s best writing. The song’s lyrics look to the past, when the band’s music career was just starting, and look ahead to the future and advancing the band while still balancing a healthy love life. Around the 3 minute mark, the melody switches to the one that was used in the OK ORCHESTRA trailer, beautiful vocal arpeggios and drum loops playing before the track’s chorus enters back in again, building beautifully on the rest of the instrumentation (and some new instruments) in a very Disney-esque fashion. However, the song doesn’t try too hard to be an epic closer -- the track’s outro is extremely low-key, featuring sparse instruments and vocals, and frankly, it gives me chills. It’s just a gorgeous ending to a pretty great body of work.
This album is AJR’s least creatively bankrupt, most well-produced, most unique, and best album yet, and I honestly see great things in the future for the band and their perception, even within internet spheres that typically hate everything AJR touches. Yes, this is their best, but something tells me this album isn’t their peak. The band’s steady rise has been undeniable, and this album is their biggest jump yet. This album sees AJR display what they can do -- great lyrics and compelling emotional appeal in “My Play”, great production and creativity in “OK Overture” and throughout the album, great melodies in “Adventure Is Out There” and “3 O’ Clock Things”, and more. I strongly believe that the band is going to grow as they continue releasing music, and even as they make music that will likely continue to appeal to the mainstream, I think that the band is on a strong upward trajectory that is bound to continue onto their next records, until they’ve created an album that even the most passionate AJR haters can look at and say, “Hey, that ain’t too bad”. Or, at least, that’s what I hope.