Here’s a fun party trick I highly recommend: If you’re playing host, put on OK Go’s Of The Colour of the Blue Sky, sit down, and wait. Notice the heads start to bob, the primitive grins start to form. Eventually, someone will ask about the music. If you’re lucky, they’ll start with a specific band in mind: Is this MGMT? Grizzly Bear? TV on The Radio? Hercules and Love Affair? In this case, say no, and nothing else. When someone eventually asks, point blank, “What is this?” say, audibly, OK Go, and watch your friends’ faces rearrange at the concept. The reality is that Of The Colour Of The Blue Sky is a fantastic album, on par with or better than most anything the previous group of fashionable musicians has yet to produce.
After their YouTube breakthrough in 2006 (you remember that silly treadmill video), the members of OK Go spent a long time working on Of The Colour Of The Blue Sky. Given the band’s past, it’s difficult to prepare yourself for just the kind of leap in songwriting the album presents. Of The Colour Of The Blue Sky is an almost impossibly mature-sounding effort, one that effortlessly breezes through electronic music, fuzzy guitars, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and unbelievably smart, upbeat pop songs. And it’s all held together by clean pop production care of Dave Fridmann. He, of course, is the producer behind Oracular Spectacular and a bevy of other albums that are germane to this discussion, including every Flaming Lips record since 1990 save for Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.
Up until now, it’s been particularly easy to dismiss OK Go as the Treadmill Band, as those Weezer wannabes who produced that godawful song “You’re So Damn Hot” from the Pam Anderson roast. It’s been easy because their bark in hype mostly lacked the musical bite. But that no longer applies, not when the band is dishing out tracks like “Needing/Getting,” “Wtf?” and “Skyscrapers,” which have slinky funkiness that brings in the band’s already-developed sense of songwriting into the land of Prince-ly pop and TVOTR rock. The joyous dance tracks like “White Knuckles” and “End Love” stand up against anything by Hercules & Love Affair or Justice, but they also have an edge that will appeal to disco haters. And on “Before The Earth Was Round,” OK Go brings the emo-turned-electro-friendly music of Passion Pit into the planet of sound where bad emo once dominated.
That aforementioned party trick is actually rather old, and it used to work with Moby, Radiohead, and the Beastie Boys. But OK Go doesn’t have the luxury of ubiquitous pop music. The band’s lack of ubiquity was detrimental in the case of Oh No in 2006, which, while mostly famous for that one song, was a fine leap in power-pop songwriting from the turd of their eponymous debut in 2002. The “treadmill video” wouldn’t have gone viral if “Here It Goes Again” wasn’t at least partly infectious.
OK Go has never had the luxuries in credibility that more indie-centric bands from Brooklyn have had in the past few years. They’re a Chicago band that immediately signed with a major label after an endorsement from This American Life‘s Ira Glass. They were known for their fashion and videos well before their breakout on YouTube, and their viral video only led to sales after it made the rounds at MTV. (Lately, OK Go frontman has been bashing the major labels for their digital policy, something that will forever endear them to a certain class of the Internet.)
The problem with trusting Of The Colour Of The Blue Sky is that it’s the prototypical “growing up” album, an effort that for the last decade has almost universally failed. Just about every band with a random source of hype — be it starting the MILF meme (Fountains of Wayne), bringing sleaze to dance punk (Electric Six), or Saving Rock ‘N’ Roll (The Vines) — have all released forgettable follow-ups. It’s entirely reasonable to distrust that this kind of growing up can ever be effectively accomplished, especially in the context of a major label. Everyone from my editors, fellow rock scribes, and plain ol’ music fans was — and will probably remain — cynical.
If there’s any problem with the album, it’s that the clean pop production (not to be confused with overproduction) afixes it awkwardly between the easy listening it aims to be and the artsy record it is. But my god, this album is easily one of the best things I expect to hear all year. Anyone who tells you otherwise is clearly aiming for the emptiest of empty cred.