Crate-Digging: Freak Owls – Orchestrates EP

(Sing Engine, 2012)

Critical Masses is a friend to Freak Owls, and Freak Owls is a friend to Critical Masses. I’ve had some nice things to say about them in the past. I’ve also churned out a little bit of promotional jargon for Taxidermy, the band’s first record. So we are not strangers. We are connected in the most metaphysical and philosophical ways you can possibly imagine. In the end, as are we all, we are one.

But I’m not here to sling verbose, self-important  nonsense. (Or am I?) I’ve got other agenda items that I need to tick off, not least of which is hitting the grocery store on my way home to grab some pureed pears and summer squash for junior. So I don’t really have any time to waste, do I?

OK then: FreakOwlsOrchestratesEPisreallygoodOKseeyoulaterbye.

Alright, I have a little more time than that.

You clicked the links above and realized that I have a great affinity for Freak Owls’ – and project mastermind Josh Ricchio’s – music, placing Taxidermy in my Top 10 for 2010 and calling out pretty much every marketing avenue for not picking up on the release in favor of the majority of twee garbage that constitutes “indie” these days. As if slapping that tag on anything means something edgy and underground anymore. It hasn’t for years, and when the fiftysomething co-worker in the office adjoining mine blares The Smiths, Regina Spektor, The Fratellis, and Death Cab for Cutie in succession – just those songs that you recognize from television shows or commercials, of course – I can’t help but die a little bit inside. I’m calling out indie fans for being lazy now. I guess it was inevitable.

Ah, but I digress. I circle back only because Freak Owls linger in the shadow of popular culture when they should be basking in the glow of its approval. Taxidermy started that conversation. Orchestrates continues it.

Without straying from the folk/chamber pop sound of the first record, Ricchio, an obvious Sufjan Stevens enthusiast, has embellished his sound here, but has done it so subtly that it’s impossible to discuss the difference between the two releases without digging into the craft itself. As such, I’ve taken the literal meaning of the word orchestrate and drafted my own dictionary examples to relate to this EP.

orchestrates (v., present tense)

  1. a) to compose or arrange (music) for an orchestra*
    b) to provide with orchestration*
    c) the layering and deepening of Freak Owls’ composition, including the extra reliance on strings and percussion.
  2. a) to arrange or combine so as to achieve a desired or maximum effect*
    b) an action undertaken by one who has composed and structured his or her life to within an inch of itself, the dissection of which threads through Freak Owls’ songwriting at an elemental level.

*taken from

While Taxidermy felt full even though it lacked a true full-band approach, Orchestrates is even fuller, and it’s in no small thanks to the contributions of We Are Augustines drummer Robert Allen (Kolby Wade on “Button Up, Buttercup”) and the string instrumentation of Cody Geil. No sooner are these contributions evident than on opener “Drunk Ghosts,” on which the folkiness is muscled up by the time the chorus hits, and Freak Owls, the collaborative unit, is truly realized. Geil shines on “Lights” (damn that easy pun!), an almost fully vocal/string piece, as the crescendo, also highlighting Ricchio’s dynamic upper range, soars majestically before gliding back down, a moment that does not cease to raise goosebumps on repeat listens. Seriously, it gets me every time – it’s probably my favorite moment on the EP.

On definition point 2, we take a more meta look at the meaning of “orchestrates,” as a structural progression or organization, where the subject constructs or arranges aspects of life in an attempt to control, and therefore guarantee safety and security, on multiple levels, free from the interference of outside factors. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Those outside factors always creep in, reminding us again and again that no matter what we do, we’re going to be consistently thwarted by fate, or even life itself (is there a difference?), and we’ll have to readjust our outlook and act accordingly. Sounds kind of bleak, doesn’t it? Not to Freak Owls. What they’ve tapped into and reconstituted into an easily accessible format is the joy – yes, I said joy – of life’s unpredictability. We’ve got to revel as our carefully placed and designed pillars of configuration crumble in the presence of the uncontrollable.

Take for example, “Button Up, Buttercup,” in which Ricchio sings, on the chorus, “Listen baby, we’re out of gas, and I’m out of cash,” chaotic unpredictability made real. But does he whine, complain, slump in dejection? No way – he offers reassurance: “Don’t you worry, ’cause I’ve got a plan / your eyes are sunny skies, and it’s about to rain / So button up, buttercup, we’ve got a long, long way to go.” There’s absolutely a bright side, even though the songs characters are going to have to hoof it for a while, under threatening skies no less. The plans have adjusted, and the focus is on the relationship and the time spent together, no matter how the moments pass. And that’s the secret to it all, really – and, to a lesser degree, the secret to Orchestrates.

There’s no reason why Freak Owls shouldn’t be on your radar – there’s a new full length, hopefully to release in 2012, in the works, and the band is consistently touring far and wide. Did I mention you can download Orchestrates for free as well? Oh, you must. Mention this review in an email to Josh and get a bonus track!**

**There are no bonus tracks – this is a publicity stunt on the part of me, and only me, to get more people to read Crate-Digging. Now, if only Freak Owls would suggest to their fans to “like” us on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter…

(I do want to question Josh Ricchio on one lyrical point, and I’m going to snarkily put it here instead of ribbing him via text message: In “Golden Eyes,” Why is God such a monster for not putting out the sun, which is on fire? Wouldn’t that kill us all? Sounds like he’s doing us a favor by not putting it out, doesn’t it?)

RIYL: Sufjan Stevens, Nick Drake, Owen, Iron & Wine, The American Analog Set


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