Oh No Ono
, February 5th, 2010 09:35
Records that really matter, that stand the test of time, create their own world. They don't bow to genres: they define them. Records that merely reflect what's going on as they're being made might capture a zeitgeist, and albums may catch a wave of hype that makes them globally successful, but to set themselves apart they need to be able to speak to us whenever we hear them. What percentage of records that you've championed still gets regular plays? The answer: far less than you'd probably admit. But some survive. You know a great record when you can play it years later to someone who's never heard it and not feel even the slightest bit embarrassed at your infatuation. Such a record has endured. It is its own entity.
What's this got to do with Danish five piece Oh No Ono? Eggs is not, for instance, Pet Sounds, Spirit Of Eden, or For Emma, Forever Ago. But, like all three, it is a record obsessed with assembling its own world, in this case kaleidoscopic, chaotic yet welcoming. It's made by a band whose drive is such that, as documented elsewhere, they broke into an abandoned military hospital outside Berlin to record, and at times worked in shifts around the clock for weeks. For 'Swim', amusingly, they even claim to have gone "so far as to reenact the cloth washing rituals of the West African Baka pygmies, recording ourselves trying to get a good groove out of splashing in the water on the beach". And, in order to ensure that they are equally challenging lyrically, they adopted automatic writing techniques, sometimes writing stream-of-consciousness lyrics by committee, at other times randomly plucking lines from spam email. Oh No Ono are nothing if not foolishly ambitious.
The end result is dizzying, divisive and exhausting. It's also highly addictive. It works both as a product of contemporary low attention spans and as their panacea: in throwing new ideas into each song at roughly the pace at which Deadwood's Al Swearengen curses they not only pander to those easily bored but render others speechless at their academic ingenuity. Consequently they sound like a million different acts, often at the same time. For the older reader, George Harrison gets a nod on 'Eleanor Speaks' and it's hard not to hear ELO in 'The Wave Ballet' despite its spiritual, choral introduction and a later swerve towards Queen's 'Flash Gordon'. It's harder still to miss Supertramp and Harry Nilsson during 'Icicles', while Phil Spector is indelibly stamped on 'Swim'. Many 80s bands would have killed for the keyboard lick that decorates 'Internet Warrior' even as it swings into shoegaze territory, yet 'Eve' is quite simply a loving Scott Walker pastiche. But this isn't just a Mojo-friendly séance: the band credit Black Dice with influencing 'Beelitz', and MGMT and Caribou are useful reference points too (though frankly 'Helplessly Young' sounds like no one so much as Loney Dear).
Eggs is very much of its time, in other words, at the mercy of the overwhelming variety available these days. It's a record that has gorged on the then-and-there as much as the here-and-now. But it constantly surprises, carefully constructing a universe in which such diverse sounds can coexist. Furthermore, in Malthe Fischer they have a vocalist of unique character, his wailing falsetto cresting the waves that form throughout Eggs. Words are sometimes strangled, at other times flow like honey off a knife. Love it or hate it – and rest assured you'll do one or the other, sometimes both – his voice is very much its own master, squealing at the top of its range like a deranged chipmunk and yet leaving an honest trail of both confidence and vulnerability in its wake. Even when vocal duties are handed over to Aske Zidore, whose plummy tenor graces 'Eve' – the story of a loveless relationship in which "the bells rang out for the couple who still had no troubles to forget" – they still confound expectations, Zidore reaching its brutal, chilling dénouement with a doomy intonation that would have made Vincent Price proud: "Go love go / Don't come back again / I'm not your friend / Bye love bye / I just can't pretend to be your friend".
It's lyrics like these – baffling and astounding in equal measure – which are the album's final treasure, most probably sidelined until you think you've at last got its measure. Picking them apart is an endless delight, the unravelling of a braid of enigmatic phrases and graphic images: "icicles swing like crystal bells", "the dream readers are sleepy", and marriages are planned "above a plain of knives". 'The Tea Party', meanwhile, offers such incisive similes as "tense like champagne trapped in the veins", though even that is eclipsed when Zidore sings of how "I have seen the queen and danced with her puppy / She's already done a movie about me".
It's that final image that captures the spirit of Oh No Ono best: playfully provocative, absurdly entertaining. Eggs is contrived, if contrived means crafted. It's also pretentious, if pretentious means elaborate. But, like its artwork, Eggs is ornate, psychedelic, nostalgic and visionary. Most important of all, it's an entrance into a world that is hard to forget.