Otobo is the project name for the music of Josh Thorsey and Justin Holden, based in Albany and Kinderhook New York, respectively. Their band project began after discussing music at work. Both are guitarists, but their primary focus is songwriting, producing and creating records “as a full-scale message, making music for the mind.” Their self-titled debut album Otobo is the first of many to come.
When I get an album to review here on Divide and Conquer, there are several ways I can audit the music, but sometimes the project and the playback match perfectly. For Otobo I took an early morning walk with my temperamental iPod, which happened to be working great. This collection is very much a conceptual journey, where songs or passages meld seamlessly into each other. Many of the sounds, while somewhat familiar, are used in new and fascinating ways. Thus I was amazed to learn that recording mostly took place in a field in Kinderhook, using the sounds of the ground, an oil tank and various other objects for percussion and samples. Though I thought I’d heard birds or wind, it’s wild that these were organic to the recording process and not added later. Holden did most of the recording and mixing, using Studio One.
The band further explains: “We just wanted to be honest with what we were saying, and show our dual perspectives on the world in a sonic realm. It was very easy for us to be vulnerable when collaborating, and that honesty goes a long way (toward) making songs filled with emotion.”
Immediately after hearing this album, I texted my bandmate John and told him this music was like “Home Taper Pink Floyd Without Drums.” That’s a simplistic description but it’s a start. I’ll discuss certain tracks but with the caveat that this album should be taken as a whole, the way it was intended.
“Dawnbreaker” fades in with what I originally thought were bird sound effects and synthesized waves of dusty wind, but which I now realize are “real” location birds and possibly offstage traffic. There are isolated bits of sound that could be footsteps or stick crackles. Almost magically the keyboards and guitars appear, creating an ominous but triumphant opening theme. “Masterpiece” shatters the spell with a single guitar chord, and all the backgrounds fall away. Two reverb-drenched electric guitars share a sweet dialogue, followed by Pink Floydian vocals, organic bongo-like percussion and the occasional synth trill.
“Sunseeker” rises organically from the ending of “Masterpiece.” Initially things quiet down for some Egyptian-flavored guitar through a cool-sounding tremolo. There’s a quiet soulful vocal and more expansive chorus voices, easygoing percussion and otherworldly sounds. “Carry On” feels like a direct continuation or middle section, this time on Spanish-style acoustic guitar and a more upfront vocal. “I’m floating through space / I’m floating without a trace / A place I’d call my home / No one to hold…” This track feels the most traditional thus far, like a dark acoustic ballad where both guys trade vocal duties. Regardless, it still has a surprise, big-finish ending.
“The Garden” is built on what sounds like a guitar-picking loop playing in 6/3 time (is that even a thing?) like a prog-rock deep cut. The slashing electric guitars are a shock but also a total delight. Almost everything the boys do is represented here in this one track.
“Listen to the Birds” begins after the first true “silence” in the album, starting out like a simpler Paul McCartney or Roger Waters acoustic riff, but you can’t expect this song (or any other) to play through as they began. At two minutes in, the table is flipped for reverb-drenched guitars, strange percussion, coyote howls and god knows what else. The rising chorus at the end is a thing of beauty, followed immediately by “Wind Song” featuring saxophone by Michael P. Farrell (is that what sounds like whale calls?) and some of the coolest, deepest percussion hits on the album.
“Sweet Child” runs almost seven minutes, again featuring Farrell on sax, and feels like it’s the “space out” Part Two section of “Wind Song.” There’s a veritable symphony of instruments, strange voices, screeching electronics and organic drumming here, impossible to describe. There’s even some crickets at the end! “Lazy Star” features one of the most beautiful acoustic guitar riffs yet, with guest Eddie Jowels on additional keys. “Release” takes us out with more beautiful dual-guitar picking, with just a hint of dissonance. An otherworldly synth chorus offers a final benediction, ending with what sounds like ancient stringed instruments or possibly the inside of a piano.
Obvious I’ve just become a huge Otobo fan. Check them out for something truly new and unique!
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