Features > Artist of the Month > October 2005
O.A.R.

 


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   '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...' (Done.)

   '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, and 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 a result.'

   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...)