Ann Arbor band comes of age

BY BY JEFF SANFORD
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 21, 2008

Mason Proper
Olly Oxen Free
Dovecote

3 Out of 5 Stars

In late August, as fall semester neared, five bookish hipsters were busy fleshing out songs in a vacant Ann Arbor house. The result is Mason Proper’s second full-length, Olly Oxen Free, a release that marks a significant improvement from March’s Shorthand EP.

No doubt, the Ypsilanti quintet has seen their share of plot twists in the years following their 2004 genesis. So far, the band has survived a name change and a revolving door of lineup shifts since their formation under the moniker Patterns In Paris in the small town of Alpena, Mich. To write the songs that provide the framework for the band’s latest release, vocalist and primary songwriter Jonathan Visger retreated back to the seclusion of the band’s unassuming motherland. Consequently, Olly Oxen Free evokes the longing and melancholy that’s often associated with the lonely, dirt-road-streaked landscape of northern Michigan.

Album opener “Fog” establishes the mood with droning organs and a brooding guitar line. Sparse, bass-heavy drums carry the song through an autumn-gray atmosphere where Visger’s voice balances spectrally in the mix. Next, the band proves their hook-crafting ability with “Point A to Point B,” a track in which the chorus just might be the most enduring moment of the album. Visger’s voice soars as a heavily accented backdrop of drums and guitar play behind him. With some perfectly placed “ooh-ahs,” the song is equally engaging and memorable. “Lock and Key” continues the breezy, midtempo vibe with sharp guitar riffs needling out over a walking bass line.

After “Lock and Key,” the album takes a marked turn. Leaving the relatively lighter, accessible elements aside, the band steers toward darker, more experimental territory. The ominous opening chord of “Only A Moment” prefaces a song that combines plodding distortion with moments of Deerhoof-inspired vocals. The band further expands the scope of their sound with the next tracks, “Out Dragging the River” and “In the Mirror.” Both help sustain the down-tempo starkness previously hinted at in “Fog.” “Downpour” is a disjointed, percussion-driven collage of effected vocals and eerie guitar stabs.

Despite the predominantly melancholic ambiance, Olly Oxen Free is very much a groove-based album. Drummer Garret Jones’s inventive percussion drives the record, supplying each track with a trademark bounce. The band’s choice to work with producer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) proves to be the right one. Coady’s production sets the appropriate stage for the album’s potent mix of atmosphere and groovability. On “Alone,” Visger adopts a dynamic, rapid-fire vocal approach that invokes TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, a comparison made particularly apt by Coady’s presence.

Nonetheless, Olly Oxen Free is not without its flaws. The middle tracks lag and risk blending together entirely. Occasionally, single ideas are gruelingly stretched over whole songs, producing some long-winded, unimaginative moments. Yet the album’s bright spots consistently outshine its missteps. With an overall impressive effort, these five Michiganders have established themselves as a relevant force in the indie music world with a promising future.