By Conrad Amenta | 3 August 2009
Oneida get a lot of mileage out of their boredom; I’ve never heard a band whose music sounds so much like the result of indie rock and post-punk distended and stretched until they no longer resembled that comfortable music we know and love and inevitably grow bored of. Over the course of their ten plus years they’ve occasionally reinvigorated the recognizable, made it seem new and generally been absurdly prolific and not at all boring. Nonetheless, this review was to be my line in the sand, my moment of tough love: I gave The Wedding (2005) and Happy New Year (2006) high marks so I approached Rated O tough, firm, hands-on-hips—stern. In the interests of appearing rigorous or at least attempting to avoid looking like a salivating fan boy at the altar of Oneida I was set to demand everything from Rated O. I would not crumple like a quivering mass before their effortless rhythmic insouciance. Then the first third of Rated O goes on like it belongs to one of the best albums of the year and I’m already arming off saliva.
So in a way, the triple disc Rated O is not a surprise at all though its intent, like all Oneida records, is to surprise, to stay interested, to fight the boredom. None of its subsections, stunning though they are in Oneida’s typical way, are representative of their belligerent whole. But the band still sounds, fundamentally, like it’s essentially fucking around and experimenting and not taking things too seriously and, more often than not, striking gold.
Take as evidence semi-dancehall opener “Brownout in Lagos” and drum freak-out “What’s Up, Jackal?”—as vital a set of opening songs as any in the band’s catalogue. They continue the band’s tradition of dropping one-two openers like fists, as engaging and bracing as they are uncompromising. But it’s the dozen minutes of “10:30 At the Oasis” that are at once Oneida’s manifest while also like nothing else they’ve done; only this band could so casually plop what sounds like the Studio or Meandrethals or (those bands’ spiritual stepfather) Jan Hammer’s theme to Miami Vice, then run it through permutations those bands seem uninterested in by rendering it crunchy and edging it sharp and generally putting the song through the ringer. In its span “Oasis” becomes IDM and indie rock and serious about textures and flippant about dancing, which all at the same time sounds very much like Oneida.
The group still revels in noise, repetition, and rhythm, and it’s here that the album’s second third can be so brusquely loud that it turns, strangely, into its supposed antithesis: a chore. I struggle to find another way to describe Oneida’s decision to dedicate the second disc of their opus to rock music in any other way than “boring.” The ten minutes-plus of “The Human Factor” is demanding but it’s also strangely off-put by the rock kicks of “The River” and “I Will Haunt You” which open the second disc pleadingly and turn Rated O‘s second third into a morass of posture. Oneida fans might recognize the group’s early work here and hail it as a return, but the segmentation of these types onto discs is an implicit admission that Oneida, like any band, can compartmentalize rather than hybridize their sound; that they are, simply, the sum of their equation’s parts, and there turns out to be only three parts to boot. “Ghost in the Room” seems anthemic as conciliation and returns to the band’s pastiche noise in its incredible last two minutes—which is beside the point. After the vital mission statement of the first disc this stewarding of guitar solos, this supposedly undiluted, no-nonsense rock gesture, seems like that of apologists. I never thought I’d say that about Oneida.
The second disc does level out eventually, with “It Was a Wall” in particular getting infectious on the organ and psych jam “Luxury Travel” the first genuinely noisy song in a collection of songs so intent on being rock n’ roll that they may as well be white noise. But with the third disc’s plummet back to just the kind of hippy-vibed, sitar-inflected cosmic-isms that were the sole problems with Oneida’s last two albums and previously forsworn by Rated O‘s first disc, Oneida’s compartmentalization begins to sound as if the group are parodying themselves. “O” combines the first disc’s ambient noise with the second’s big freak-outs and, yes, brings back the sitar; “End of Time” feels like an afterthought, and together they hardly argue for their inclusion here. Thankfully the album ends cataclysmic, the twenty minutes of “Folk Wisdom” ripping like a Valkyric epic in what might be one of the band’s best songs. It’s certainly one of the best on Rated O, cycling through so many seeming codas only to reemerge. “Folk Wisdom” is also testament to and evidence of drummer Kid Millions’ absolutely imperative place in the band. It must absolutely slay live.
Ultimately, Oneida’s decision to split their formula up is alienating. It’s strange to hear the band so willingly demystify what makes it Oneida, for them to provide the key to understanding their constituent particles. The band is so prolific it borders on contentious—take a moment to think about the sheer magnitude of eleven releases in eleven years, and then wonder what they’d be capable of had they combined some of those records and given them a good edit. After a decade during which Oneida have sounded less like people who seek to leave their imprint on the world so much as conduits for the ebb and flow of the music they left behind them, Rated O sounds sort of like a goodbye. It’s certainly no compromise but, in its more obvious moments, Rated O suggests a maturity that’s almost jaded, that they’re not as able to submit to a loss of control. The album sounds like a coming to terms with the notion that what they’re doing is no more special than any other band, which is strange because Oneida have always sounded so immediate, so vibrant and fresh that they were undeniably and singularly them. It’s not that Rated O isn’t a good album. At least half of it is one of the best albums of the year. It’s that Rated O is just good enough and in a straightforward enough way to make you miss the Oneida that was about joyous, staggering confusion.