AJR taps into its inner child with ‘OK Orchestra’

Photo of AJR Single Cover
AJR Productions/Courtesy

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The band AJR — named after the musical trio of brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan Met — came out with a “Bang!” with the release of its fourth studio album OK Orchestra, living up to the name of the album’s hit single and working to push the limits on mixing musical genres and playing with unconventional sounds. While some of the tracks feel like forced, made-for-radio hits that stray from the unique, whimsical composition style that attracted many listeners to AJR’s music, the LP as a whole resembles a well-crafted theatrical performance.

Not unlike many other new releases this year, OK Orchestra is a quarantine project, but for the brothers who have written and produced some of their most successful music from their living room couch, their songwriting process didn’t change very much. AJR stays true to form, using samples of atypical sounds such as jingling keys as the baseline beat for many of the tracks, then layering drums and brass instruments on top of these synthesized noises. When paired with what is often described as Broadway musical-style vocals, the songs have a recognizable quality that doesn’t falter in any of the band’s albums, OK Orchestra included.

The album explores the idea of being suspended in the undefined grey area between childhood and adulthood, probing the core insecurities that tend to surface in this time period and finding a way to paint an honest picture of each one through small, simple stories. What is so beautiful about songs such as “My Play” and “Joe” is that they are able to tell childlike narratives — whether they are about performing a skit for one’s parents or idolizing the cool kid in your fifth-grade class — from the view of a wiser adult, someone who is still grappling with the lasting negative beliefs from their youth that they must work to unlearn. The songs touch on feelings of constant inadequacy and the rejection of love, all while marching to the beat of a mix of real and manipulated digital instruments to create the effect of a swelling symphony.

Unsurprisingly, the most disappointing songs on the new album are the ones that feel too manufactured and cookie-cutter, as though the band tries to push a mainstream pop hit and forgo its individuality. Songs such as “Bummerland” and “Way Less Sad,” which feature standard drum beats and repetitive lyrics, tend to appear formulaic, opposite of the typical eclectic nature of AJR’s music. While the band is known for writing powerful songs about minute stories, these hits are far more shallow, not directly attempting to reach the listener.

Songs such as “World’s Smallest Violin” and “OK Overture,” however, are strong examples of the three brothers’ fearless leap into a multitude of musical genres, daring to explore folk, jazz and musical theatre all within a single track. This ambitious bridging of styles could lead to disaster, but the brothers of AJR have mastered the skill, mirroring not only the sound, but also the lyrical content of each genre: In “World’s Smallest Violin,” for example, they imitate country classics by telling a generational story. In terms of Broadway influences, many tracks are narrative-driven, and listeners have long noticed melodic similarities to that of theatrical soundtracks. In conjunction with songs that often speak to very foundational human emotions and fragilities, this may be what is most compelling about AJR’s music, and what allows the band’s songs to resonate with audiences both young and old.

In OK Orchestra, AJR proves once again that it is a band that can create music no other artist has grasped, staying consistent with the classic sound that hooked its fans almost a decade ago when it debuted. Though the album doesn’t necessarily push the brothers to the next level of musical excellence, it certainly reinforces their talent, leaving many listeners hoping for the long-teased Met Brother Broadway Musical to finally come to fruition.

Contact Chloe Forssell at [email protected].