Oh Look Out / Waldo & the Naturals

The end of the year is fast approaching and there is a ton of music out there that we have yet to cover, so I’m going to try something new. I’m going to try to review two albums/EPs in the same post. With this post, and hopefully others in the future that I tackle this way, they won’t be completely random; the bands will have some sort of critical aspect in common with one another. Today, I’m going to look at the recently released EP from Waldo & the Naturals, Silver Dash, and the upcoming release from Oh Look Out, Orchestrated Fuzz. We originally covered Oh Look Out about a year and a half ago when their first recordings were coming out, and Waldo got a look a little over a year ago. Each group puts forward a very poppy product, but each has their own specific take on a pop sound.

On the surface, Orchestrated Fuzz from Oh Look Out might seem like a punk record. Its nine songs clock in at just under 20 minutes, and song titles like “…Or Be Destroyed” and “I Have Never Exploded” suggest punkish leanings. Yet frontman JP Pfertner has expanded on his bedroom pop songs from a year ago. Oh Look Out basically functions as a solo project for Pfertner, but he has expanded his sound dramatically from the fun little numbers from a year ago. The arrangements are fuller, and the songs have the kind of energy that makes it seem like there’s a full live band at work. Pfertner seems to have been inspired to play with OLO’s sound in a way that his earlier work only alluded to. Songs here never develop beyond fragments, or shift abruptly mid-song. “…Or Be Destroyed” is a rollicking wall of synth-inspired power pop, for which the last 30 seconds is an emo-arena-style singalong chorus run through a filter that makes it seem like a distant dream.

Oh Look Out - '...Or Be Destroyed'

Oh Look Out was also influenced by punk in terms of the album’s breakneck pacing. “…Or Be Destroyed” flows right into “Monster Fiction” without so much as a rest. The album’s 19 minutes is exhausting if only because, as a listener, you don’t get a single breather. By the time album closer “Nothing Makes Sense” arrives, its schizophrenia is almost expected. Pfertner and his bandmates are clearly filled to the brim with ideas that they pack tightly into every aural inch of this record. In Orchestrated Fuzz, they’ve put together an album that may not have a single like last year’s “Analogatron,” but plays with the pop form in a surprising and exciting way.

Waldo & the Naturals, much like Oh Look Out, refuse to shy away from a good hook. This is also heavily melodic music, but with a different approach than OLO’s. Whereas Oh Look Out is making what sounds like the pop of the future – bite-sized and frantic – Waldo & the Naturals, spearheaded by Waldo Wittenmyer, is making pop from the past. Silver Dash draws heavily from keyboard-based music of the late 60s through early 80s, especially Northern (or “blue-eyed”) soul. Sometimes this works to great effect, as in “Blame the Wind,” and sometimes it falls completely flat, as in “Across a Melody.”

All told, the first two tracks on Silver Dash are quite good. “Isotunity” kicks off the EP with the album’s most heavily distorted guitar in a relatively hard-driving number. The music matches lyrics that bounce back and forth between despair and optimism all centered around some memorable hooks. “Blame the Wind” mellows things out a bit, but keeps some of the grit that the best Northern Soul has. This is like that Seventies one-hit wonder “Brandy” by Looking Glass, but with some teeth. The keyboard is dated but in a delightfully retro way, and the bouncy melody again belies some lyrical darkness.

Waldo & the Naturals - 'Blame the Wind'

From there, however, things go a bit off course. The songs lose their urgency, which may have something to do with the syrupy strings in the arrangements. While it results in mostly inoffensive material, “Across a Melody” is the worst offender of the bunch. There are a bunch of disparate parts (buzzing lead guitar, squiggly synth) that don’t add up to anything contemporary.

In fact, that’s the danger Waldo & the Naturals run into over and over again. Retro is a hard thing to pull off. It’s easy to fall back on the patterns of the past, but it’s hard to infuse them with a contemporary sound that keeps them fresh and interesting for listeners who have ingested those patterns for decades. It’s harder to look ahead at the future like Oh Look Out are doing, but easier for the result to sound interesting – at its worst.

Silver Dash is already available on bandcamp. Orchestrated Fuzz is officially released on October 30th, but you can access Pfertner’s massive multimedia webzine accompaniment of the album already at Oh Look Out’s website. Highly recommended.

– Carter