(Exploding in Sound, 2013)
Maybe it’s a little too easy to simply lump Ovlov in with other 1990s revivalists, but I’m gonna anyway. It’s the first and most recognizable element to their sound. In fact, the Connecticut band’s press release quotes an interview with Impose that suggests the band’s bringing “back the 90s grunge sound that never sold out with an attitude as if 1994 never happened.”
And why the hell not. Yuck did it a couple years ago, right? And there’s a steady stream of other bands within and immediately without the Exploding in Sound Records’ roster that have really grabbed on to the aesthetics of underground rock music at that moment in time: Pile, Two Inch Astronaut, Fat History Month, and current Pitchfork darlings (and really, great for them and the exposure) Speedy Ortiz. These are all really great, really fun and energetic bands, and who cares if it’s called a “revival,” it’s worth paying attention to.
I imagine that the band feels some sort of affinity or loyalty to Fort Apache Studios, the legendary recording space formerly located in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and currently situated in Rockingham, Vermont, both sites about 150 miles from their home base of Newtown, Connecticut. Upon those hallowed tape machines, within those soundproofed walls, bands like Pixies, Swirlies, Superdrag, Dinosaur Jr., and Eleventh Dream Day recorded some of the most exciting rock music you can think of, and it’s clear that these are all great jumping-off points when discussing Ovlov and their peers. But if we simply and lazily stick some comparisons on the band, we do them an injustice. But I’m gonna do it anyway, for just a second – Dinosaur Jr. and Swirlies.
So I’ve now spent almost 300 words discussing Ovlov in light of their peers and influences, and suggesting that because they live 150 miles from every iteration of Fort Apache Studios, their future has been written as an amazing “Boston” band. Well heck, that doesn’t do much than provide context, does it? Would it help if I suggested that Am, as the sum of its influences, is quite a staggering listen? I mean, without Swirlies, would you have the insane scuzzy bent riffs of bombastic opener “Grapes”? The separation of the vocal timbres of singer Steve Hartlett and guest vocalist (and Speedy Ortiz mouthpiece) Sadie Dupuis contribute an ethereality to it as well, a counterpoint to all the lurching and diving and squealing of the other instruments. It’s like They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days in the Glittering World of the Salons was on repeat for at least a season of the Hartlett brothers’ lives, and they soaked up every second of it. (Ovlov is all Hartletts, all the time.)
“The Well” proves that putting fuzz on pretty much everything and stuffing muddy vocals in the middle of the mix is just as powerful and effective as any pop radio hit (well, of the grunge era anyway) if you do it right. Here the Dinosaur Jr. influence really stands out in the vocals and the divebombing guitar pyrotechnics. I’m not going to apologize for latching on to that, and you shouldn’t apologize for enjoying the heck out of it when you hear it. There’s a reason this kind of heavy tunage is so pleasing to the ear – bands like Dino J and Ovlov are really able to sweeten their songs with enough melody in the midst of the chaos that you’re not bogged down in stuffy punk or hardcore territory.
Am from front to back is an easy listen, all the way through. There aren’t any dull moments, and when you get to a buried track like “Blue Baby,” where guitars and drums build from melancholy to pummeling, you really get the sense that the Hartletts have a strong grasp on this whole songwriting thing. The entire song feels like verses separated by bridges, giving it a tenuous, teetering feel, as if it’s going to collapse on itself at some point. It almost feels like a reckless performance, as if the emotion underlying it is threatening to burst the entire thing apart. It’s chaotic in all the best possible ways.
I could go further – closer “The Great Alligator” is another study in Swirlies worship – but I’ve rambled enough on the whole subject. Here’s the takeaway – Ovlov are the best of a recent crop of guitar worshippers, totally invested in (re)creating a specific sound for an audience that’s clearly hungry for this latest wave. (See for example, the EIS roster mentioned above, and the exposure that they’re generating.) It’s a fun time – I’ll admit, I was a little young for the initial wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so I had to backtrack on it. I’m ready for this round.
RIYL: Swirlies, Dinosaur Jr., Fat History Month, Thinking Machines