I think every artist gets that twinge at some point to quit just singing about love and trying to get laid, and get to the real deal. Expose the loam and earthworms burrowing in the soul under all this manicured grass covering the fucking thing we call life, man. An admirable pursuit, no doubt, but oft this exegesis often is unfocused and, mirroring its literary counterparts, is overly long, sidestepping the point at every turn and making a mild hash from every last riff and good line that one has left in the fridge. In rock terms, this take the form of the double album, which usually has about 1.26 albums worth of good material with the rest being Spackle and Bondo, ineffectively hiding the holes. The 45-minute album, though merely a mechanical bracket left over from the days of vinyl serves as a perfect amount of time for anyone to get their point across without going overboard, but seems to be too limiting for the "big-ideas" opus. On his debut albums, Okay, aka Marty Anderson, has answered that unuttered call with his two similar but different excellent albums High Road and Low Road, fitting his excesses into the best possible formats, and sidestepping the whole double album thing altogether. Instead of showing up to the party with a giant roasted turkey, he instead has brought to the table two of the best side dishes at the feast.
The first thing you may notice about both is that they betray the hallmarks of the bedroom studio Phil Spector: An intimate, insular feel to the music, a weird but completely compelling singing style (Marty's scratchy elfin rasp is off putting for a minute, but that's all it takes for it to sink in) and the sense that they are creating a world in their isolation. What he avoids is the po-faced Rapunzel routine that most self-imposed untouchables adopt. Perhaps the reality of his situation, his actually being homebound because of extensive medical treatment belies any bullshit isolation in which the output other wannabe rec-room-opus-penners are mired. Instead you feel invited into his little home-crafted world on both these records.
All journeys should begin on the High Road; though to imply that this is the more positive of the two is not taking seriously. Rather, the High Road here is the self, and the enlightenment and horror that comes with being in touch with that self. It opens with "Up," a splendid guitar/keyboard/birdsong-through-the-window melody wandering into a collage, ending with a shower that gives you a clue as to the homey journey one is about to undertake here. On his vocal tracks, Anderson has a uncanny knack for finding a great hook, a great many-meaninged line, and cycling them, gradually building ornamentation into a simple yet beautiful song, like "Have" where he intones "I used to have to play a part," its mantra playing both the upside and downside of participation in the greater social sphere, of "Hungry" with its chorus of "It ain't the truth that I got" These little mostly single-titled philosophical pop nuggetts come one after the next, like Nietzsche's aphorisms in Beyond Good and Evil, a rapid procession of one-two punches to the soul, without the tangents of misogyny and hating the English, preferring to hold the course of self-inquiry.
While his limited instrumentation and voice don't exactly vary a lot throughout the album., it doesn't matter a lick, because his melodies are immediate and infectious, like the swaying of "Mind" and the campfire kazoo and guitar sing-along of, er, "Sing-Along." Toward the end of this road lies "Rescue" where he questions
Working on the old High/Low
Wondering just how high it goes
Working on the old High/Low
Wondering just how low it goes
You can save yourself.
which is one of the most inspiring bits I've hit on in an indie rock song since "I stood up and I said 'Yeah!'" in the Flaming Lips' "The Spark That Bled" shook me much more than was probably intended. When Lester Bangs said he looked to rock-n-roll for a model for a better society, because of some epiphany he had in a flashbulb moment (I'm paraphrasing and probably botching the metaphor) I know what he's was doggedly pursuing, because little morsels like that are my flashbulb moments.
The companion album, Low Road acts more as his peek on the horrible world outside his window, opening with crickets and cannonfire ambiance of "Bloody" foretelling
Bloody, bloody, always going to be the way
Bloody, bloody, we don't ask why
Bloody, bloody, we got no reason left to pray
Bloody, bloody, don't even try
leading into the strident pop of "Now" repeatedly informing us "we spend out time, letting it go." Quotable little jewels like that just kill me. Its what we want out of our rock poetry, something smart enough to be poetry, something goofy enough to not stick out like an uncracked Nabokov monstrosity resting on your nightstand to convince you that you are potentially erudite and brilliant.
Breaking the singleton-title-length barrier, "Holy War" alternates "Every day they/I got a gun up to my head" demonstrating the thinking man dilemma: that the cosmic and the personal are one in the same, pathetic fallacy is no fallacy if you see the big picture. Excellent stuff. Later on in Low Road is the jaunty "Devil" dancing Ring-Around the Rosie at our demise, and "Replace" adoption of "Amazing Grace" as its tune for explaining the futility of action against a self-destructing world already in motion is brilliant. Another beautiful thing is that the lion's share of Okay's songs run around the 2-3 minute mark, so there is ample room to lay out his ideas, pretty it up, and then quickly leave you with the reverberations of what he's said.
This album closes with birds chirping, just like High Road began, on "Bullseye" and its devastating line "Something is pulling your bullseye away from where it belongs", sliding gradually into an extended field recording of chirps and gunshots. It sheds the final light I needed to get why this is the Low Road and the other the High one. Our tendency is to see the universe as the source of all things, but in fact we are Cartesian beings. As far as we are really concerned, all things radiate from us, and the pulsating thing inside us shooting out to the world is in our care and is what needs to be directed with care. Am I reading too much into these slight recordings of a man in his room? Perhaps, but if I don't listen to the man in my own psychic little room, who should I listen to?
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com