Phonograph: OKNO

RIYL: Guided By Voices, ELO, Pavement

Just in general, Brooklyn-based quintet Phonograph would seem to have a formidable task ahead of them in trying to carve out a distinctive niche in rock’s already overcrowded arena. Bands spring up almost daily, each competing for attention and some measure of popular acclaim. Fortunately, Phonograph jumped off to an impressive start with their 2007 self-titled debut, a set of songs that blended atmosphere and Americana so adroitly, neither was able to overpower the other. Lead singer Matthew Welsh was clearly weaned on the Tom Petty school of slow drag, his vocal drawl coming across as the perfect accoutrement for the band’s weary, ragged shuffle. The songs evolved like a slow burn, frayed around the edges but steadfast nevertheless. Other tracks took a more rustic route, bringing to mind Neil Young and the Band in all their tattered glory. And while Phonograph’s penchant for tossing in all matter of cosmic effects occasionally crowded the proceedings with unnecessary distraction, their assertive, straight-ahead designs remained as basic and unmistakable as the flat black discs that inspired their name.

Nevertheless, as history has proven, it’s the artists that demonstrate variance and flexibility that are ultimately hailed for being the most innovative and intriguing. The Beatles are the ultimate example; from the midpoint of their career, their songs branched out in a multitude of directions, whether it was rock, country, blues, ska, folk, psychedelia or experimental. And while it would be presumptuous to mention Phonograph in the same breath as the Beatles, it ought to be noted that the former do emulate the latter, at least in the sense that they leave no boundary unbroken.

Indeed, OKNO finds the band on an even more adventurous tack than the one they took before. Having amped up the energy level, they kick off the set with the buoyant “You/Me” and sprinkle in a number of equally infectious offerings from that point on, from the effusive strains of “Less Than Expected” and “Holy Rollers” to the rambling banjo-based clap-along of “Mountain Tops,” the chipper steel guitar sway of “American Music” and the quaint ukulele serenade of – what else? – “Uke.” Make no mistake, the group still seems tempted to dally with psychedelic cacophony, and even their most melodic moments frequently run head-on into some discordant dissolves. Happily, though, those intrusions don’t allay the inviting approach OKNO conveys overall. The fact is, this is one of the most satisfying albums a relatively novice band has delivered in quite some time. Here’s hoping Phonograph choose to crank up their sound for a long time to come. (BNS, 2009)

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