| 'So,' the bio interviewer
concludes. 'Is there any last thought you'd like to share about
Stories of a Stranger?' Marc Roberge doesn't hesitate.
'I feel more militant and pumped up than ever before,' the O.A.R.
songwriter and frontman insists. 'It's critical to include that...'
'I know I come off to some folks as arrogant
about this band, but it's not that. I'm proud of O.A.R. This is
our coming-out party. We've reached the first step on the ladder
of where we want to be.' The urgency in his voice – a little
hoarse and gravelly over the phone, assertive and electric with
emotion throughout Stories of a Stranger – can't
be missed as he adds, 'That's important to include too.' (Done,
It's tempting to just let the tape recorder
run, transcribe everything Roberge says, and presto, there's your
bio. But some perspective is necessary. Anyone who's followed
this band knows that they've never been content to follow precedent.
Founded by high school friends in Rockville, Maryland, and then
transplanted to and exploding out of Ohio in the late nineties,
they practically defined the DIY approach and became grass-roots
legends through unforgettable shows, smart self-marketing, and
a never-say-die work ethic.
Basically, O.A.R. changed the rules, waiting
until they were a proven commodity, with a deep fan base and a
sound that was already a staple on college and alternative playlists,
before signing to a major label.
The deal with Lava Records was by no means
an excuse to start coasting. If anything, it pushed the guys harder
to pare their strengths – the enigmatic honesty of their
lyrics, the rock-meets-reggae sizzle of their groove, their fleet
and fiery improvisations – down to a concise, high-impact
delivery. Getting to that point was only a matter of time …
and that time has come.
Stories of a Stranger is arguably
the first real O.A.R. album. While their sound is unmistakable,
it now pulls off a contradictory feat by opening itself to a broader
range of influences through songs more tightly focused than any
they've done previously. By far it takes the listener closer than
any other album to the matchless experience of hearing O.A.R.
live – with the audio tweaked to position the listener in
a center seat, a few rows back from the stage. All the ingredients
are in place: the in-the-pocket lock-up of bassist Benj Gershman
and drummer Chris Culos, the slash and simmer of Jerry DePizzo's
sax, guitar parts from Richard On that stretch from steamy rhythm
licks to soaring, tuneful leads.
What's different is how much more the band
has taken into its sound and yet how tightly it all fits into
each song – and how these songs stream into a single statement,
brutally personal yet so well executed that it lifts Roberge to
the head of the rock wordsmith list.
From the loneliness of the performer even as
his audience opens its arms to him ('The Stranger') to the consequences
that can emerge when an artist reaches back toward an ill-chosen
fan ('Dakota'), from images of love lost ('Love and Memories')
to a celebration of love between a husband and wife ('Nasim Joon'),
Stories of a Stranger rises from Roberge's experiences
while also touching everyone who has tiptoed through the minefields
of the heart.
'I've never written songs like this,' he muses.
'In the past they've often started off well but then they meander,
and by the end I haven't really completed my thought. These songs
complete every thought I was shooting for.'
This change stems from Roberge's decision to
experiment, for the first time, with co-writing. Joining forces
with Glen Ballard, whose titles range from Michael Jackson's 'Man
in the Mirror' to Alanis Morrissette's 'Jagged Little Pill', the
pair collaborated on 'Love and Memories' and 'Program Director,'
a tribute to the bond between listeners and local stations in
the golden age of rock radio.
After a few days writing with Ballard, Roberge
recalls, ' 'I saw at once that this was not a bad thing. This
wasn't about somebody trying to change me. Writing is part of
my job. And to give it my best, I still have to learn from people.'
Roberge also joined with ASCAP award winner
Chris Keup on 'Tragedy in Waiting,' which examines, in Roberge's
words, 'the pitfalls of an over-thinking mind.'
Then, as quickly as it had begun, the co-writing
stopped. 'Glen showed me how to build a musical composition around
a feeling and only then put words to it. That was pretty much
all I needed to know, so when I went back to writing on my own,
I found that better songs were coming out.'
Most of Stories of a Stranger, then,
is pure, though invigorated, Roberge. He cut demos at home, worked
out basic parts with Richard On, and then brought the results
to the rest of the band. 'Just like on all our earlier stuff,
I never dictated what anyone else should play,' he insists. 'There's
so much mutual respect among us that we just direct each other
freely. Normally that kind of thing can kill a band, but we're
so open with each other that everybody's cool with it.'
What made this routine different on Stories
of a Stranger was the element of time. 'We took time to focus
on the strength of each song,' says drummer Chris Culos. 'A lot
of our stuff in the past came from jamming it out onstage, which
left it feeling unfinished even when we'd put it onto a record
later on. This time, we broke the songs down to acoustic guitar
and vocals. We'd check whether the lyrics made sense with the
music, and whether the flow was right, and whether it all fit
concisely between the beginning and end. We paid attention to
every note and every beat. And the songs came out stronger as
The more things came together, the broader
the river that nourished O.A.R.'s sound. Their island feel is
still there – in fact, it's deeper than ever on tracks like
'Program Director,' where Roberge's good-vibe paean to classic
radio leads him almost into calypso phrasing. At the same time
this flavor blends into the straight-ahead rock, the jazz intimations
of DePizzo's saxophone, the neo-soul guitar sweetening of On's
guitar licks on 'Nasim Joon,' and most unforgettably the stark
eloquence music and message on 'Dakota,' adding up to a signature
that's unmistakably O.A.R. yet more fully three-dimensional than
anything they've put to disc thus far.
Give credit, too, to Jerry Harrison, whose
background with the Talking Heads and the Modern Lovers, not to
mention his pioneering garageband.com site, makes him an especially
artist-friendly producer. 'He told us, ‘Guys, I want you
to put your live show on CD. I don't want to make a slick record.
I don't want studio tricks. I want to capture emotion.' That's
the first time anybody has ever said that to us,' Roberge says.
'And it was amazing. With that kind of freedom, you either succeed
or you fail. But he believed in us, and he was there for us all
the way to the end.'
Seasoned by contributions from P-Funk keyboard
legend Bernie Worrell, Tower of Power founder Lenny Pickett, vocalist
Toby Lightman (Roberge's muse on 'The Stranger'), and other guests,
brought to a sharp audio focus by engineer Eric 'E.T.' Thorngren
(Robert Palmer, Bob Marley, Violent Femmes), Stories of a
Stranger isn't exactly a breakthrough album. Think of it
more as a moment of arrival: The breakthrough happened when they
exploded into the spotlight a few years back, as a whirlwind of
brilliant ideas and riveting performances.
On Stories of a Stranger those pieces
come together, their energies synced up and driving O.A.R. toward
a full realization of its power. 'We'd never been 100 percent
proud of a record before,' Roberge declares. 'Even so, if we weren't
fully behind Stories of a Stranger, we wouldn't be putting
it out at all. But we are 100 percent proud of every moment of
this one – and I want everyone to know that.'
(Done – and, for O.A.R., just beginning...)