Crate-Digging: Freak Owls – Orca City

(Sing Engine, 2013)

Look, do you get it yet? Do you understand? Including this one, you’ve now had three chances to get on board the Freak Owls’ magic bus of blissful bliss, and I’ve been the disseminator of this important information each time. If I haven’t convinced you yet that the right thing to do is listen to Freak Owls, maybe you’re just a hopeless case. If you’re still undecided, maybe you should take a look at my reviews of Taxidermy and the Orchestrates EP again. You don’t have to do it right now … yeah, do it right now, then come on back, because you should start at the beginning. It’s a good beginning. And a good middle.

This isn’t the end though, it’s just a convenient third part in the narrative. In fact, Orca City, more than Owls’ mastermind Josh Ricchio’s previous releases, contents itself with stretching out, enveloping the listener in lush atmospherics, the equivalent of listening to a remote lake lap its shores on a cool, bright afternoon. Compared to Taxidermy’s rain-spattered late urban nights filled with ennui and dissatisfaction, Orca City spends less of its time worrying about the melancholy and more time on escaping. Its skies are bluer, its air is crisper, and its clouds are fluffier.

And speaking of “lush” and “songwriters,” it’s probably not a good idea that I’ve been reading reviews of Sufjan Stevens’s new Christmas opus this morning. As such, with it at the forefront of my mind, I’m tempted to mercilessly compare Freak Owls’ output  to Stevens’s more traditional songwriting, and while that’s a really good thing, I don’t want you to confuse one with the other. Ricchio and Stevens share some remarkable traits, from the vocals residing in the higher registers to the careful arrangements, and they each have an unrivaled ear for melody. But while Stevens sometimes seems lost or unfocused (manifest in positive language as “restlessness”), Ricchio has, throughout his three releases as Freak Owls, demonstrated a masterful focus and a dedication to songwriting perfection. He doesn’t release throwaway moments. When I told him, as he was preparing to release Taxidermy, that closer “Can You Feel It (Patience, Officer)” was one of my favorite moments on the album, he laughed and said he tacked it on at the last minute. So it doesn’t matter, really, that the stylistic similarities between Ricchio and Stevens exist – Orca City still comes off as a unique, imminently, and remarkably fresh take on the orchestral pop song cycle.

[NOTE: I’ve known Josh a long, long time…]

So though “I Would” begins the album as the perfect bridge from the band’s previous work, with sharper arpeggios and agitated percussion tying to some of the more restless work of past releases, it’s the full folk-pop beauty of “More, Son,” “Skies Above,” and “Wayside” that carry off Orca City, shining in the setting sun, to its ethereal conclusion. But “I Would” is the kind of detour that’s necessary on an album like this, and one that Freak Owls excel at. The title track, too, is a downtempo, almost trip-hop track full of squiggly synths and aquatic allusions that stands sturdily to counteract the airiness. And “Bodies,” I’m happy to playfully report, owes a great debt to the incidental music in the Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner adventure romp Romancing the Stone, taking cues from the tense scenes wherein General Zolo chases the leads throughout the Colombian countryside. But perhaps my favorite two minutes of the album come in the form of “Clockwork,” an interlude, dare I misdiagnose, that sounds like Ennio Morricone composing a whistled, Western morsel for The American Analog Set.

I don’t know why I dig it so much, I just do. Sue me.

So here it is, attempt number three, at convincing you that Freak Owls is by the people, for the people, and of the people, to paraphrase something or other. Freak Owls is also for the children, if I’m remembering the words of the immortal Ol’ Dirty Bastard correctly. Regardless, in Orca City, you’ll find yourself, or lose yourself, depending on how you approach it, and whatever your inclination, you’re human, and you’ll at least get something out of it. But if you really want my advice, this whole exercise has kicked open the door for you for full-fledged Freak Owls worship – don’t hesitate, step through it.

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


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