As a general rule, artsy post-punk bands don't make for overnight success stories. Then there's the Canadian quartet Ought. They've gotten as close as a band of their stripe can, thanks to their compelling debut More Than Any Other Day.
Ought's More Than was released in April 2014 and quickly won praise from critics, landing the group on year-end lists and propelling them into an almost constant state of touring and recording. They followed up their debut with an EP that fall and then another full-length, Sun Coming Down, in late 2015.
Part of the initial excitement around the group was how compellingly they wove a diverse array of influences from the late '70s and early '80s, with critics stumbling over themselves to name check Television, Talking Heads, the Fall, and Sonic Youth as part of the band's pedigree.
For frontman Tim Darcy, though, such sonic homages are sort of beside the point. "It would be more annoying if we had actually been trying to do that and been found out," he says, "but I understand why it happens. It helps to situate things historically."
Darcy is remarkably level-headed about the band's place as critical darlings, even as he maintains an interested-but-distant perspective on the chatter of musical journalism.
"I read a lot of [the reviews], for sure. It would be very difficult to not read them, just because you're kind of inquisitive about what people think about you," he admits. "As to whether they are productive or not, I don't know. It's productive in the sense that it allows people to fixate on things that interest them at any point in time. On the other hand, there's a sort of hive-mind influence that's going on. It's not talking about the way the record sounds; it's talking about the way the world is thinking about the record, talking about other press about the record."
He adds, "Personally, I like to listen to music a lot. And I think where a record is situated in where we happen to be in a certain time is interesting, but that has more to do with trends than sonics. As a band, we spend a lot of time thinking about how records sound, so I would love it if more reviews talked more about that in general."
And it's hard not to feel his frustrations when listening to the music he and the three other members of Ought — keyboardist Matt May, bassist Ben Stidworthy, and drummer/violinist Tim Keen — make. There's rarely just one thing going on in any of their songs. Consider the title track on their 2014 debut. The song begins with a languid, off-kilter, mid-tempo groove that sounds like Modest Mouse playing underwater before riding a furious accelerando into a hard-charging, barely subverted anthem that strikes a balance between resignation and euphoria. Darcy yelps with a kind of withering sarcasm about buying two-percent milk, finding both joy and dejection in the desultory experience that recalls The Clash's "Lost in the Supermarket."
Despite such insights in the music, Darcy tends to shy away from making Ought an overly political band. "We're almost reveling in the lack of a thesis statement and what that might mean. Writing the songs is kind of like figuring things out for ourselves, rather than being declarative or ideological in a specific way," he explains.
The furthest he will go is allowing that frustration and awareness to pervade the songs. "That kind of disaffection is part of what I'm saying," Darcy says. "It is people trying to figure out the difference between what they think and what they can do in the world or the difference between what they want and how they act. There is a sort of murkiness there. Disaffection is a bit too much of an apathetic term, but there's definitely a reckoning to be done with people's capacity to do things."
That lyrical tension is matched by music that is every bit as fraught; there are moments of melodic beauty and pop exhilaration in addition to stop-start riffage and noisy, experimental dalliances that can often exist with poised unease in the same song. Songs like "Beautiful Blue Sky" and "Never Better" toy with this dichotomy, offering as many easy pleasures as they do obtuse, more challenging moments.
"I think that it is, for the most part, kind of a blend of the different ways the members of the band tend to listen to music or tend to think about composition," says Darcy. "We all listen to a lot of music that has both of those elements. And on some level there's an artificial divide between those two things, but it's real. Some of us listen to music and are really interested in texture and tone or noise as an instrument, and there are other ways of listening in the band that are more interested in melody or emotionally affected by something that's catchy or memorable.
"It's just part of the weird-like Ouija board of how we make music," he concludes. "Everyone's just slowly pushing between the things that we're good at."