Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Record review: Ornery Little Darlings - 'O is for Ornery'

By Sasha Geffen

There's a certain feeling you get in antique stores, or maybe in a family member's forgotten troves, when repositioning old world artifacts in the now. Open a tarnished leather-bound jewelry box for the first time in decades and smell the air of a remaindered past. The light glints off the patina; suddenly, we're filled with the sense a time we don't quite remember ourselves. We piece together a tinted history, thrilled with our own archeology, filling in the forgotten space with idealized fossils of false memory. 

A playthrough of O is for Ornery evokes a similar sensation. A vintage, brassy artifact of a record, the trio's premiere LP breeds piano-bar grit with garage rock bite. Spiky opener "Prowler" stomps in with pure diesel-soaked art-punk that hearkens back to the early days of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Emmi Chen does a mean Karen O over the raw treble of bristling power chords and acidic minimalist riffs, but the track reveals itself to be both a pump-up and a fake-out by the next song. I'm sure OLD loved "Art Star" as much as the rest of us back in the early aughts, but they're not about to build their entire LP around its kernel. On track two, Ornery Little Darlings sheath their claws for a spell. Chen reigns in the growls for a breezy keyboard jam. We start to see that the aim here isn't to make as much noise as possible for as long as possible (a path that some neophyte art-punk records tread without restraint). O is for Ornery masters a sense of pace. Like a well-aged vintage film, a grainy narrative that repeated generations return to, it knows when to pull the punches, when to build tension, when to break it wide open.

The gritty duet "Might Call You Baby" might epitomize the fevered cabaret-punk sound that's fermented from the genre materials OLD has gathered for themselves. Clipped, percussive vocals climb an upward slope of bluesy guitar lines. It's a raunchy little number with perfect build and rockabilly swag that'll ricochet off the walls of your skull on one listen. Standout track "Bobby Sr." cultivates an aura of film-noir unease as Chen's silky vocals issue vague threats over sparse, scattered instrumentation. The catchy "Silver Spoon," meanwhile, bounces around atop classical guitar and pseudo-organ meanderings. It seethes a charming anger, a subdued but looming aggression that manifests in a tight, wry narrative.

But it's when the fever breaks that the record bares its core, launching forward from its hot, smoky darkness into a raw and alarmingly earnest place. The climactic "Want Me" moves past the clever, creeping steps of O's first seven tracks. The smirks and flirts melt away; OLD's not teasing anymore but confronting us with a crescendo of real feeling, real desire, real pain. Chen pushes her vocals into full throttle as the song builds and explodes through the record's prior playful stances.

It's the dance around that core that makes its revelation all the more transcendental when it finally splits the surface. Darlings play a perfect game of restraint, only breaking their costumed visage once they've accumulated proper tension. The record's zenith and its subsequent acoustic denouement prove that Ornery Little Darlings are capable of more than the fixed smiles of their cabaret masks--and that they know precisely when to show it.

O is for Ornery is now available as a 50 cent download from the band's Bandcamp.

Bobby Sr by Ornery Little Darlings

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