AJR’s Ok Orchestra Samples Broadway, Blues and Brotherhood
Written by Adela Skowronski on April 2, 2021
In an era where most major popstars have foresaken the art of album arrangement, AJR brings an album that can be enjoyed through its chart-topping singles or as an album listening experience.
Look – I have to preface this review by saying that I’m probably seeing it (at least partially) through rose-colored glasses. That’s because most of the albums I’ve listened to by major pop artists in the last year were a disappointment. Justin Bieber’s “Justice” included a couple of great singles with abysmal attempts to connect the dots; I grew so bored with Nick Jonas’s “Spaceman” that I skipped through half of the album. Even last year listens to albums by Sanah, B.R.O and more artists that we play here at WPNA 103.1 FM left me with the impression that most labels don’t care about organizing albums anymore. People listen to mostly singles nowadays; why should they bother with a consistent vision for an album?
That’s why I was so happy when I dove into AJR’s new release last week. “Ok Orchestra” feels like a modern pop album that captures a single musical theme. It’s not quite a concept album – at least, not in a traditional sense. But the motifs that come back again and again help fuse AJR’s explorations of self-doubt, depression, adulthood and perseverance into a cohesive work.
OK Orchestra is AJR’s 4th studio album, released by their very own label on March 26th 2021
From a production standpoint, it is an absolute joy to listen to the way AJR manipulates the function of instruments throughout the whole album. String pizzicato becomes percussive sounds; a vocal line gets layered and treated like piano chords; a violin morphs into a trumpet halfway through a melodic line, then finishes as an electric guitar riff. The motif of changes is consistent and appears in key moments through multiple songs : most notably in The World’s Smallest Violin and Bummerland. They must have been inspired by musicals at least to a minor extent as well; not only is the use of motifs very common in the world of musical theater & orchestral music, but the album starts off with an Overture track!
AJR’s consistency within lyrics needs to pointed out as well in this work. Don’t expect multi-layered symbolism or intensely poetic passages: this is a pop album afterall. What’s so impressive to me though, is how the band tackles difficult subjects with simplicity. They’re able to find irony in existential dread, highlight hypocrisies from statements uttered with good intentions, provide bursts of wild optimism, all while validating the demanding reality of depression. Sometimes they’ll come out and say they have no idea what they’re doing; other times, they’ll share a story from a child’s point of view. Even Humpty Dumpty makes an appearance eventually! Intentionally or not, Ok Orchestra when listened from beginning to end can also be used to sum up (very well!) humanity’s general emotional state during the height of the pandemic. It’s a see-saw where neither optimism nor depression spends too much time at the top of the swing. Sound familiar…?
Author’s Favorite Tracks: Ordinaryish People (feat. Blue Man Group), World’s Smallest Violin
Author’s Favorite Music Video: Bang!