Hungry Ghosts


Paracadute, 2014

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Once upon a time, circa 2005, OK Go were a witty, riff-centric guitar-pop band that made a clever single-continuous-shot music video of the four band members doing a highly choreographed routine on treadmills. The low-tech brilliance and deadpan humor of the video gave it viral Internet reach.

Fast-forward nine years and the quartet—Damian Kulash (lead vocals), Timothy Nordwind (bass), Andy Konopka (drums) and Andy Ross (guitars)—have become virtual art-house darlings by making a dozen more increasingly complex music videos, every one a single continuous shot featuring the band members as props in an elaborate pageant of visual illusion. Each video has been thoroughly original and entertaining, setting a fresh new standard for the form. If you haven’t yet seen the first two videos from this album, “The Writing’s On The Wall” and “I Won’t Let You Down,” you really should, because they’re amazing, full of a fizzy visual creativity that’s thoroughly wonder-inducing.

The challenge to fans of the band like yours truly has come on the musical side. When the group’s Prince-goes-to-Motown-and-drops-acid-with-the-Flaming-Lips disc Of The Colour Of The Blue Sky arrived in 2010, produced by the Lips’ own Dave Fridmann, I called it “a HUGE musical left turn, and not everyone is going to make the curve.” I also asserted that I had indeed made said curve, that I got the musical joke OK Go seemed to be playing on its listeners. I hated Of The Colour the first time through, only to have it grow on me considerably after several listens.

Something similar has happened with the band’s follow-up, Hungry Ghosts. Last time around, I barely made the curve; this time, the first couple of passes at this album left me feeling like I’d gone right through the guardrail. A week ago, I was four rounds in and still waiting for the magic to happen, still disappointed in the layers of cold artificial noise and deep sense of ironic detachment that permeates this album.

And then I woke up one morning with a melody stuck in my head. And realized it was from “Turn Up The Radio.” The next morning it was “The Writing’s On The Wall.” The next one after that, it was ”Obsession.” All three tracks still feel like they lack something in the final estimation—see below for details—but they don’t lack catchy melodies. Unfortunately, OK Go seem to be approaching their music the same way they approach their videos, i.e. it needs to be big and elaborate and filled with stunts and gimmicks designed to surprise and amaze you. This works in the videos; in the music, not so much. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Opener “Upside Down & Inside Out” is a rangy, energetic number full of sometimes-jarring sonic trickery. “The Writing’s On The Wall” features an undeniably appealing melody, even if the multiplicity of synth tones, bleeps and blurps sometimes makes it feel as over-made-up as a first-time drag queen. But “Another Set Of Issues” is the track that really underscores the dangers of the band’s embrace of Lips-style synth-weirdness; it’s chilly as an arctic winter, thoroughly programmed and utterly dehumanized. (I really wonder what OK Go’s touring configuration looks like these days, because on this one it seems like it would be Kulash and three guys playing synths.)

The thing is, even the egregious over-production and over-programming of a tune like “Turn Up The Radio”—which feels at times like a failed spoof of that stunningly awful Maroon 5 album I reviewed last year—can’t obliterate the catchy melody at its core. Next up, the thumping “Obsession” offers a slightly more successful parody of pop excess, this time (fittingly) of INXS.

And it’s mostly downhill from there. “I’m Not Through” is a mélange of Prince-isms and Flaming Lips weirdness, with Kulash trying to give his vocals soul on a track whose music feels utterly soulless. The ponderous “Bright As Your Eyes” fills half its 2:58 length with repeats of its one-line chorus. The unapologetic disco beat on “I Won’t Let You Down”—which feels like a straight lift from Off The Wall—is mildly entertaining until you realize the only purpose it seems to serve is to provide an upbeat soundtrack for the video; divorced from the visuals, the song is a self-indulgent throwaway. Worse yet is “The One Moment,” a unjustifiably bombastic U2-meets-faceless-boy-band mess.

In the fourth quarter, the boys slow things down without really changing their approach. The tedious “If I Had A Mountain” is arranged like a big-haired ’80s power ballad with echoey drums and looming synth washes, and “The Great Fire” is a sub-zero hellscape of synths, loops and fake strings. At the very end they make a last-ditch attempt at warming things up with the gentle “Lullaby” (featuring REAL acoustic guitar!), but it feels like a desperate Hail Mary aimed at rescuing this album from the Auto-Tune vortex.

In the end, Hungry Ghosts suggests that OK Go is no longer a band; rather, they are music video auteurs whose songs now exist mostly to provide the necessary fodder for their videos. Like the videos, this album is stuffed to the gills with gimmicks and gadgets, a few of them clever, but most of them simply serving to distance the listener from the otherwise appealing melodies of songs like “The Writing’s On The Wall” and “Turn Up The Radio.”

The videos are brilliant, though. You should really watch them all.

Rating: C-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2014 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Paracadute, and is used for informational purposes only.