After the single “Bang!” made quite the explosion on Feb. 12, 2020, the band AJR has been diligently working through the pandemic to produce their new album, “Ok Orchestra.” From months of planning through everything COVID-19 threw at them, including having to cancel their tour, came a beautiful, heart-wrenching and fun collection of 13 songs.
AJR stands for Adam, Jack and Ryan, the three brothers who make up the band. While most of the time in life brothers typically fight, these three know how to work as a team to create great music.
With divorced parents, their dad, Gary, is a major supporter that is well-known by their fans. Even during their virtual concert, there was a “Gary Cam” so that fans could watch their dad in the corner of the auditorium dancing and singing along during the entire show.
Their newest album, which dropped March 26, features songs that comment on the many universal struggles that kids our age enjoy reflecting on. Each song has something to say. It’s one of those albums you may have to listen to a few times to understand everything they are trying to say.
They explore random thoughts at 3 a.m., our parents’ divorce, that kid from middle school who was always better than us, being stuck inside during the pandemic, fitting in with friends and even ranting to therapists about problems that may not seem significant, but they are to you. These are some deep themes, and AJR eloquently explores them through these songs.
AJR returns to their roots a little bit in this album, but also explores some new types of sound. Thankfully, they returned with an overture, the first song of the album that combines the rest of the songs of the album. Just like in musicals and other larger music pieces, an overture is the first song that sets the stage for the rest of the show, and AJR creates something similar to start off their albums. It is musical mastery, a mash-up of what’s to come, setting the tone for the rest of the adventure. Their last album, “Neotheater,” did not have this aspect that is essential to AJR, and I’m so glad they created one for their new album.
“Bummerland” is one of my all time favorites, a perfect quarantine song. “We’re only going up from here…”, God I hope so. With a catchy melody and percussion adding a sweet beat to combine to make a song perfect for dancing with your gals on a Saturday night.
They do something really magical in this song, and throughout the rest of the album, that I think is pretty unique for AJR. They turn singing into instruments. A voice turns into a trumpet, which turns into a mandolin, which turns into a violin, completely seamlessly. It really is incredible music production, changing what music could be by introducing this new form.
As opposed to a band, they often use a soundboard and audio mixing to create their songs. They do occasionally go back to the roots of music, adding a full orchestra into some of the songs, but for the most part they are able to press buttons to create their sound. Super high-tech, and super exciting.
A popular hit coming out of the album seems to be “3 O’Clock Things,” which also has some political commentary. A lot of the song talks about those deep thoughts that you can only have at 3 a.m. Most of us can relate to the lyrics describing how they paid for college when YouTube was an option, especially now after attending Zoom University for the past year and a half. Or how you “vote for someone to vote for someone to vote for someone”, and if that person ends up “evil,” you just have to accept it and say that “he means well”.
With the horns coming in and out of the entire song, it sounds almost jazzy, but an outstanding melody overall. There’s fun little comedic relief when they say if they keep talking politics, they’re Hamilton, without the hits. But then things get really serious as the melody also slows a little, then a single voice comes out of the quiet to say “If you’re f*cking racist, then don’t come to my show.”
Wow. As they describe themselves, it is a risk to get involved in politics, as many artists lose fans because of it. It takes courage for artists to make a political statement. But AJR is not afraid, and they recognize it is part of their duty to speak out since they influence a lot of people, especially in these tumultuous times.
I would say “The Trick” is their weakest link in this album. It begins with a strange voice, almost like an old woman’s, and while it eventually transitions back to more AJR, it is a little hard for me to connect with. They got a little too weird I think, but at least they tried something different.
Speaking of weird, they recruited Blue Man Group to participate and be featured in one of their songs. I’ve never seen them live, but apparently they are super awesome. I really do enjoy the drum sequence at the end, but I don’t think it really adds anything to the song. “Ordinaryish People” is a super cool song that discusses fitting in with different cliques, and how you kind of have to make your own way in the world. I love the idea, but the execution could have been a little better.
Even “Humpty Dumpty,” which may sound kind of stupid at first, is actually an awesome song, and it has a deep meaning. Humpty Dumpty puts on a good face when he falls because he saw everyone was watching, and he will later “scream when no one is around.” This is similar to how everyone these days puts on a brave face, even when they are going through something so hard, and they hide all of their emotions until they are alone, where they let it all out. Talk about catchy, this one will definitely get in your head.
Another one of my favorites is “The World’s Smallest Violin,” another good one to dance to, but it actually has a deeper meaning. A lot of issues that kids of our demographic face are not actually all that significant in the bigger picture. We are lucky in that we don’t have to go off to war, we have all of our basic necessities and maybe next to other people’s problems it doesn’t seem as grand as it is in our head. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
These are still issues that affect us, sometimes in really serious ways. So even if it is the world’s smallest violin (Spongebob reference perhaps?), we still have to play it, people still need to listen to our problems. Otherwise, we would go absolutely insane. Our problems are still important, and it is definitely still important for us to be heard. The song finishes in a triumphant crescendo and accelerando, where Jack speaks really fast and the whole band backs him up as he begs to be heard. I for one can’t wait to memorize that and belt it out at their next concert.
They also announced on March 31 that they would be touring again in 2022, some refreshing, happy news after some really long, excruciating months. I had planned with friends to see them in Tampa last July, right before our senior year. I guess we'll just have to all come together, after graduation, in some other random city wherever we end up to see them.
If you enjoyed their album as much as I did, maybe I’ll see you there.