Four years ago, Ryan Costello, the lead singer and songwriter for the Oaks, sold all of his possessions, joined a humanitarian organization, and moved to Afghanistan. While the rest of us were aimlessly bitching about the ubiquity of Starbucks and whether the White Stripes had sold out, Costello was teaching refugees farming techniques. He was so deeply affected by his experience in Afghanistan that upon returning to the United States, he joined Oaks drummer Matthew Antolick and began writing and recording the songs that would become Our Fathers and the Things They Left Behind.
The Oaks, through Global Hope Network, have pledged 50 percent of each album sale and track download to widows and recently resettled refugees in Afghanistan. The band’s philanthropy has paid off in a shower of good press, landing it alongside Bono and Peter Gabriel in Paste magazine’s article on musical activism. Although there has been much debate on the sincerity and appropriateness of politically active musicians, the members of the Oaks seem to have their hearts and heads in the right place.
Which makes it so hard to dislike Our Fathers and the Things They Left Behind. The songs range from the obtuse “Survey for a Distribution of Winter Coats,” where Costello seeks to obtain effect by overlaying acoustic guitar with a Farsi conversation, to two songs about Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who played a large role in curtailing the My Lai massacre. “Sins of My Father” and “My Father’s God” rehash college philosophy questions of religion. The wide range of songs diminishes the message of the work. The one truly moving song, “My Heart Is Weighed and Found Wanting, Kabul” is hindered by the pretension that surrounds it.
Costello is going in too many directions at once, leaving the album without a center. By the time a Whoville chorus kicks in at on the first Hugh Thompson song, the Oaks have burned up all the goodwill accorded to them. There is much to admire in the ideas behind Our Fathers and the Things They Left Behind, but there is nothing on it that can artistically rival Costello’s passion for his cause.