It's often the case that good music is filled with paradoxes. Whether it's a calmly beautiful folk song that carries an almost militant political message or a song that's instrumentally sparse but somehow expresses a complex subject, these songs achieve something spectacular. Such is the case with Okay's new album Huggable Dust (2008, Absolutely Kosher).
The Fremont band, which is essentially one man, Marty Anderson, and friends, has caught the ears of many passionate and adoring fans throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Huggable Dust, a followup to the 2005 double-release of Low Road and High Road, is characteristic of the sound Okay fans have come to know and love, but with a few extra kicks.
The sound itself is filled with contradictions -- some tracks as simple as children's songs, with tinkling piano and guitar, and others densely layered with synth and wind sounds that feel futuristic in contrast to the acoustic base -- see track 13, "Poof."
With Low Road and High Road, the overdubs were rumored to have exceeded the double digits, and I wouldn't be surprised if the same is true for some of the songs on Huggable Dust. But this is just one of the album's extremes -- whether it's optimism and pessimism, simple and complex, loud and soft, sparse and crowded, it's got everything -- sometimes to a dizzying degree.The first listen is like seeing your first Jackson Pollock painting after looking at Renoir your whole life.
Anderson's somewhat scratchy, almost strained-sounding voice may not resonate with everyone, but if you can hear it for the raw emotion and almost ironic pain that comes through, you'll be sold. One can't read about Anderson without learning that he has Crohn's Disease, a gastrointestinal condition that, to say the least, is incredibly painful and has caused him many a night in the hospital. But what is so noteworthy about this fact is not that he elicits pity for his condition or anything of the sort, but rather that he has managed to take his experiences, build a spectacular outlook on life and craft songs that anyone can relate to -- both in pain and elation.
Throughout the album you can see Anderson's struggle -- with life, with love, with his disease. The themes flow like rolling hills, changing drastically from the painfully truthful ("What a nightmare to love") to the almost forcefully optimistic ("I didn't know that this somethin' was really nothin' in my way"), perhaps paralleling the very conflict that runs through each of us.
Most tracks contain sparse lyrics that are repeated, almost like a mantra: "There's always a downside; There's always an upside," "I know who my sunshine is," "I want you ... to be happy." One of the album's highlights is "Natural," a painfully sweet love song with the simplest of finger-picked guitar parts and a basic melody that Anderson sings with passion and pain at the same time: "I could write you a novel tonight; I could write you a new song each day; it's a natural part of my day." And really, he's probably telling the truth. Anderson is notoriously prolific.
One often worries about the well-being of someone who is capable of expressing such personal sentiments in their songs, as expressing what's inside of your soul can elicit varied reactions, from ridicule to obsession. But one thing is for sure: the act of delving into this record is very much a personal experience for the listener as well. She can relate to these tribulations in her own life, and she feels a deep and unmistakable compassion for someone who can write such "uplifting" songs, whatever condition he may be in.
In a live setting, Anderson is anything but feeble. Having won East Bay Express's Most Charismatic Performer award in 2005, he and his up-to-7-person band are notorious for antics, from opening with everything from Tibetan bells to toy guns. And as Deerhoof has recently counted Okay as one of their favorite bands, they've asked Anderson to join them on two shows this October.
But prior to these, Okay will play Bottom of the Hill on Monday, July 28, 2008 with The Watson Twins (LA) and Tim Fite (Brooklyn). The show is $10 and will start at 9pm. You can buy Huggable Dust and other Okay albums via the Absolutely Kosher website. Listen if you're happy; listen if you're sad.
Emily Logan is News Editor for The Bay Bridged.