Album Review: AJR — “OK Orchestra”

Categories:  Music    The Arts
Friday, April 2nd, 2021 at 1:08 PM
Album Review: AJR — “OK Orchestra” by Samantha Mannion

Three-piece brother band AJR just released their fourth album, “OK Orchestra,” on March 26, 2021. Written almost entirely in quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this album can be summed up in one word: weird. They, as a group, enjoy being quirky, risky and story-driven in their songs. This can make them quite specific, and as a result, polarizing. They are essentially the musical equivalent of sushi — you either LOVE them, or can't stand them.

To find out where you land, you really just have to dive in to the deep end and give yourself over to the experience. For those wanting to do just that, here are some of my favorites off their new album.

“Three O’Clock Things”

A common theme with the music of AJR is that you really feel like you get to know them through what they write. This song definitely has that element because it’s all about what they think of at three in the morning when they can't sleep. The lyrics are all about education, advertisements, peoples’ perceptions of them, politics, sex, their values, and so on. It's all the things you think about as you toss and turn. They start most of the lines in the verses with the phrase, “It’s kinda funny how,” just like the way you think when sitting with your own thoughts at night. On the production end, they added a nostalgic sounding choir and an orchestra reminiscent of the song “Boogy Woogy Bugle Boy.” This gives the track a hazy quality, like when you're tired but can't sleep. It also still has a nice groove to it, so the more cerebral aspects of the song, like the jumping from topic to topic, remain digestible.

“Humpty Dumpty”

This may be the weirdest song on the album and that is certainly saying something with this group. It takes a few listens to sift through all the nuances, but it’s so worth it. This track is about all of the brave faces we put up because there's people watching us, and we don't want to inconvenience them or make them feel bad. They then relate that to Humpty Dumpty falling and just smiling through his brokenness.

It is another deceptively happy song if you compare the lyrics to the beat. You’ll find yourself dancing because it's a really fun EDM-style beat, with heavy instrumentation mixed with a fun vibe and a strong, well-written hook. However, if you look at the lyrics, it's about not wanting to bother anyone with your problems and anxieties in fear of making them uncomfortable. For example, the first line of the chorus is, “When Humpty Dumpty went down, he said screw it, I’ma smile right through it and scream when no one’s around.” It's about smiling through pain, and being able to dance to that is a real testament to their skill as writers and producers.

“World’s Smallest Violin”

These guys took a phrase that is typically used to invalidate people’s small problems and made it an anthem to the fact that they’re still problems. The exact line that touches on this is, “The world’s smallest violin really needs an audience.” They acknowledge that, yes, people have it worse, but that doesn’t make your problems any easier to deal with.

The production on the song makes it part folk, part showtune, and part something completely new to me. Then, by the end, it devolves into chaos and the tempo gets gradually faster; they add tympanies to it at just the right time to get you to start headbanging like crazy. They also have an incredibly unique production touch of instruments blending into one another, which greatly contributes to the quirkiness of this track. The video for the song is them playing a room that is gradually being demolished, which is an accurate depiction of this song.

“Christmas in June”

This is one of the only album tracks that could even kind of be considered a ballad and that's dicey. It’s not sad necessarily; instead it feels more nostalgic than melancholy. This track has a “Singing in the Rain” meets Beach Boys vibe to it.

There are not quite as many instrumental bells and whistles as some of the other songs, which ends the album on a nice palette cleansing note. Lyrically, the track is very reflective of the sacrifices they had to make in terms of romantic relationships as a result of their career. It starts with, “New Year’s Eve I was at a festival in New Orleans, you were in Tribeca kissing nobody.” They have two things they love and choosing between the two isn’t always easy. It feels really personal and like we are getting a glimpse into their lives and the lives of artists, which I really appreciate.

All in all, I love this entire album. It was so much fun to listen to. Each song could’ve been the plot to a movie, and I had such clear visuals in my head. If you are willing to let yourself embark on the weird fantastic journey that is “OK Orchestra,” I highly suggest it.

Samantha Mannion is a staff writer for The Spectator. She can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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