Music Review: All Sides by O.A.R.

All Sides, the sixth studio album by O.A.R. (Of A Revolution…for the uninitiated), was released on July 15. It was probably my most anticipated release of this year, even more so than the new U2 album coming out in October.

Unsurprisingly, many of the reviews posted on places such as Amazon and iTunes have been harsh, in keeping with the reviews posted about their past two studio releases, Stories of a Stranger and In Between Now and Then, by so-called “fans” who dissed the works for “leaving behind” the band’s sun-washed island grooved jam-rock of their earliest releases. To all of those who didn’t like those albums for that reason, All Sides must seem like a slap in the face. However, in my opinion, true fans, and fans of good music in general, will more than appreciate this album because of its songwriting, musicianship, and overall quality of songs.

Let me provide an illustrative example by looking at one of my other favorite bands, U2, who I mentioned above. In 1991, U2 released a little album called Achtung Baby which embraced early ’90s sonic technology and was a drastic departure from prior U2 work because of its sound and content. It “alienated” many of their “fans,” yet was still a commercial and critical success, and now, nearly 20 years later, is one of their greatest works. It was album which allowed the band to explore, to take risks, to grow, to do what they needed to do as a band, and to ultimately form a contemporary relevance in a world that was changing, and they were in the process of changing with.

O.A.R. has been doing no less with their albums leading up to, and including, All Sides.

All Sides is the album that the band has been hinting at over the past two studio albums, with songs such as “Love and Memories,” “Right on Time,” and the amazing “Heard the World,” among others. Nearly gone is the reggae-rock of their formative years, and instead what is left is a simply stunning collection of, yes, radio friendly, but ultimately brilliant adult contemporary rock songs. It is the latter which is important to consider when looking at the change in sound of the band, and when taking into consideration the criticisms (to put some commentary nicely) of the band’s fan/detractors. O.A.R. has been at this for several years now, since they were in high school. Now, college graduates, all around 30, with families, the band has matured. So has their music. I know that I, personally, have grown with them from listening to their feel-good party rock in college to now being a married, middle-class grown-up also nearing 30 and their music is now more relevant to my life than it ever was. For everyone who wants O.A.R. to keep releasing music that was pertinent to their (and their fans’) lives during high school and college, I simply offer up my condolences that you haven’t matured along with the rest of us, and the band.

That being said, All Sides is made for adult contemporary radio charts (AAA, AAC, etc.). Each song could be a fantastic single. Each song is a tight, focused track filled with enough catchy hooks to, sure, be called “pop,” however this is the kind of alternative pop rock which should find radio play, in contrast to much of the mass-produced, un-crafted, crap which finds success these days. While the majority of songs clock in at around 4 minutes (only “War Song” breaks the 6 minute mark), there is abundant evidence and ample room to support extended jams during these songs live, which should appease their large and devoted live following.

After the first few listens of this amazing album, I had said to myself, “Yeah, it’s fantastic, but it won’t replace Stories of a Stranger as my favorite O.A.R. album (and as one of my Top 5 favorite albums of all-time).” However, after a few more listens, that opinion drastically changed. It is a near perfect collection of songs, ranging from beautiful ballads to upbeat rockers, all infused with the passion, joy, and talent of one of the most genuine bands playing today.

Marc Roberge’s vocals are the strongest they’ve ever been, clear, powerful and with his heart on his tongue rather than his sleeve, and his songwriting is even stronger, evoking the pure, true emotions of real people that he has such a knack for. Chris Cuolos and Benj Gershman provide a perfect rhythm section, and it would, as quite is often the case with the bass and drums, be easy to skip over their significance, but listening to tracks such as “Whatever Happened” or “The Gift” it’s apparent how central to the band’s sound they are. Richard On’s always brilliant, but usually understated, guitar playing shines, and for the first time really, actually rocks out on many of the tracks. Jerry DePizzo’s virtuoso saxophone, in contrast to On’s guitar, falls less to the fore than it was on prior albums. Perhaps, following his comments made in an interview with Relix around the time of Stories of a Stranger‘s release (and I can only paraphrase from memory), he understood that not all songs needed the sax, or at least dramatic sax soloing, and in fact he eschews the sax on many tracks for the guitar, as he did on “Love and Memories.” That is not to say that his sax playing on All Sides is not necessary or well-done, it just demonstrates that every member of the band is contributing equally on this album, as Roberge indicates on their website:

“The thing is O.A.R. has never been just one style. From song to song we like to switch it up,” Roberge says. “Maybe in the past we had felt the need to explore just one of those musical alleys and see where it took us. This album is all about recording a variety of experiences with a variety of sounds. Essentially, all sides of O.A.R.”

On All Sides O.A.R. has taken its skills and experiences and created what is simply one the best complete albums I’ve heard, that has easily become my favorite album by one of my favorite bands.

A track by track break-down of the album:

1. “This Town” – From the opening soaring guitar riffs, this rockin’ shout-out-load sing-along written in appreciation of their loyal fans sets the tone for the rest of the album.

2. “Shattered (Turn the Car Around)” – The perfect choice for the album’s first single, this very radio friendly pop-rock tune features catchy choruses and a beautiful melody. Oh, and the video is pretty cool, too.

3. “Whatever Happened” – A strange little chant and then a fantastic bass line and drumming open this song. The song kindles strange musical associations in my mind…the part where the guitar kicks in after the bass and drum intro evokes the chorus to INXS’s “Show Me (Cherry Baby)” and something about the first verse inexplicably brings to mind Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” Cool lyrics, and you can’t help but sing along. There’s a great little solo by Richard On and some pretty sax noodling by Jerry DePizzo near the end of the track.

4. “Try Me” – Perhaps my least favorite track on the album, which isn’t saying much on an album that is a joy to listen to, but it it is rather similar in sound and construction to “This Town.”

5. “One Day” – A very pretty ballad with the interesting addition of strings in the background.

6. “Living in the End” – Possibly my favorite song on the album. Marc Roberge’s delivery of the story-song lyrics is fantastic. The choruses are soaring. The verses feature this funky groove. Then, wow, Richard On lets loose and really rocks out.

7. “Something Coming Over” – A fun and funky ditty about the joy, redemption, and transformative powers of finding that one special person, which I can all too well relate to. This song could be the soundtrack to falling in love with my wife.

8. “What is Mine” – This is the one throwback song on the album to the “old” O.A.R. sound, featuring a island reggae groove (very similar to the groove of “One Shot” on Stories of a Stranger) on the verses, but the choruses come back to the feel of songs like “This Town” or “Try Me.” The track also looks backward in terms of lyrical content, referring to the oft mentioned Black Rock near where the band members grew up, and themes of wandering and returning home.

9. “Dinner Last Night” – Another pretty ballad with some amazing vocal harmonizing, great guitar work, that picks up near the end for a shimmering guitar piece and a strong finish.

10. “The Fallout” – Another contender for my favorite track on the album. Starts off soft, but insistent, and consistently builds, and then drifts off into a swirl of guitar and sax. Absolutely brilliant lyrics:

They say the sky is falling
Are the angels coming too?
I’m gonna catch them when they come
Catch them as they fall
Climb on top the tower
Get me closer to the sky
I’ll bring the memories back
And save them all for you

11. “The Gift” – A powerfully moving, yet soft and delicate, song about recognizing the value of life and the things that matter the most, like friends, family and your home. The light acoustic guitar and bongos lilt over a heavy, almost thundering bass beat.

12. “War Song” – Ultimately, this might be my favorite song on the album. I’m blown away every time I hear it. Written about soldiers away from home following a USO tour in Iraq, it is nigh impossible not to be moved by the story told. The song is driven by Richard On’s clever guitar riff that is first played acoustically and later explodes electrically, and Marc Roberge’s haunting lyrics. Tears form in your heart as Marc sings “Oh this is summer in another world, far from the driveway and my baby girl.” Chills run up your spine as the song kicks into overdrive while Marc Roberge screams “Wait, wait for my love. Don’t forget me, never let me go” and later, “Oh my God, tell me this won’t last forever. Tell me that I’m not alone.” This isn’t a song for or against the war, and it could be seen as the lament of anyone far from their family, but he wrote it as the powerfully emotional story of soldiers everywhere missing their loved ones.

13. “On My Way” – The closing track starts off as another soft ballad, almost a relief after the intense sonic catharsis of “War Song,” which builds into melodic rock reinforcing the themes of a promised return home to loved ones which ends the album wonderfully.

“Right now, on this day, ‘All Sides’ represents where we are as a band and how far we have come,” Roberge says. “It makes me love playing music for a living, writing songs, and driving across the country with my best friends.”

I’ll be seeing O.A.R. tonight at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ!!!

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