Oh Malô’s debut full length As We Were is a thick, lush, atmospheric album, thematically centered around heartbreak.
Through this theme, the album progresses naturally through the conflicting emotions post-relationship. The band says the album “represents the shifting personas that burst forth after the emotional separation from a significant other. Vengeful reds grapple with introspective blues and find balance in a muted, melancholic orange. What begins as an anger-filled, distorted cluster of sound finds its way to a somber, vulnerably reflective conclusion.”
This synesthesic description is an apt representation of the album and, in and of itself, shows the band’s artistic approach towards their music. The four members of Oh Malô (pronounced “Oh muh-low) take their music very seriously and are incredibly proficient at their instruments. Drummer Manu Fernandez handles the tricky 7/8 of “Happy Birthday” with no problem, bassists Jordan Lagana and John Margaris maneuver through the rapid chord changes like skilled skiers going down a dangerous slope, Jack Mcloughlin’s lead guitar is evocative and ambient, and lead singer/lyricist Brandon Hafetz’s ethereal Thom Yorke tenor gives the album a piercing delicacy.
The production quality is impeccable, thanks to Matt Lombardi, and shows what the band does best: atmosphere.
White noise, synths, reverb-laced electric guitars, chimes, and other instruments swell together and the songs are spacey and packed with sound. Radiohead is an easy comparison, but disparate artists like Bon Iver and Local Natives also come to mind.
The atmosphere of the album is palpable, and does metastatically shift from anger to melancholy throughout the twelve songs. Opening track “Burn” is aggressive, with stumbling guitar riffs, huge dynamic contrasts, and Hafetz’s vocals coming in high and strong. The following track “Hey Mr. Paul” is diaphanous and percussive. Hafetz’s falsetto is beautiful here, breathy in all the right ways and perfectly, exactly in tune.
The lyrics in these opening tracks are opaque and abstract. They are obviously deeply personal, but are difficult to understand without context. Does that matter? I’m not sure. Some of this half of the album lacks the sharply intimate edge of the second: “Cause I miss you like hell oh I miss you/ Cause I miss you like hell/ I miss you always, miss you for days on end/ Miss you guiltily/ I miss that feeling you always gave me/ Miss you painfully.” These lyrics sound trite and the poppy electric guitar and repetitive chorus make the song twee and ineffective.
The turning point in the album, and my favourite song of them all, is track #7 “Fine” which literally made me breathless. Its intimate straightforwardness, complete with crickets in the beginning, along with its antiquated reverb and strange analog clicks, compliment the change in direction lyrically. From here on, Hafetz yields his initial anger and acknowledges his melancholy. This song is “Pink Moon,” is “Needle in the Hay,” is, frankly, perfect.
The rest of the album holds up the level of quality, and “Happy Birthday” manages to match enviable musicianship, catchiness, and a level of poignancy bereft from the first half of the album. Hafetz sings about recognizing the birthday of a partner two years gone, and his take on the complicated emotions is original and empathetic.
The album ends “I, I’m not the same/ I am not supposed to sound this way/ But without you in my head, without you in my bed/ Without your heavy presence, I am dead/ I’m not the same.”
Ending an album entitled “As We Were” with the line “I’m not the same” gives the listener a satisfying sense of fulfillment, and moreover is an example of the loving dedication Oh Malô put into this release. This LP is a result of two years of the band playing together, including performances for CMJ and for the 2015 Boston Music Awards, and its songs are beautiful, pristinely recorded, and utterly original. The band’s approach to songwriting is obviously heavily influenced by percussion, dynamics, and sounds as opposed to being confined by strict instrumentation. This results in a fabulously individual, idiosyncratic creation, untethered from the boundaries of traditional pop music.
And yet the album is poppy; it is catchy, it is singable, but most importantly, it is relatable. And that’s where the full talents of Hafetz and the band come through; despite all the guitar wankery, the nose-in-the-air complex time signatures, the unconventional vocal approach and Astral-Weeks-level repetitions of a single lyric, the band remains empathetic, honest, and sure of themselves.
Who hasn’t felt heartbreak before?
Moreover, who has ever expressed it in this way before?
3. Hey, Mr. Paul
4. Miss You
5. As We Were
8. Happy Birthday
9. Out On My Own
10. Sweet Dreams
11. It All Comes Back