It’s difficult to identify with a record that talks of the polar opposite of what you’re currently experiencing. And so it is that I find myself listening to Canadian collective Ox in the middle of a heatwave, observing that “it’s near October and you’ve got grey comin’ in your hair,” about as autumnal a lyric as you can get. Mind you, as the record progresses it gives the impression of oppressive heat and drought, its title appropriate in the end.
Ox are an eight strong Vancouver collective fronted by vocalist Mark Browning, although you rarely experience the full force of their instrumental capabilities. Often the music finds Browing alone with his guitar, musing, but the octet gives them versatility. They’ve been such a hit in their native land that previous album Dust Bowl Revival pipped Radiohead as the most popular album on Canadian College Radio.
Dust Bowl Ballads is a lonely record, and not one to uplift the soul in all honesty. Browning’s voice lends itself to an introspective melancholy, now and then rising above the parapet as the emotion grows. And there is plenty of emotion to savour in a refreshingly untreated sound, even if it sometimes sounds mannered.
Most immediately successful are two of the upbeat bonus tracks. Truck Driving Country Music Promoter is just what it sounds like, a self deprecating take on country music with amusing lyrics, stating he’s “truck drivin’, jukebox playin’, coffee drinkin’, pinball shootin’, waitress pinchin’ “.
Unfortunately this song exhibits the album’s principal annoyance, a fondness for sudden distortion clips of no more than half a second that, apart from making you jump on headphones, can potentially ruin the acoustic nature of the main material. That aside, qb notes “everybody wants to be the quarterback” over an uneven meter, talking about how “he gets the girl and the money”. Finally, 1913 looks forward to Christmas and Browning allows his voice to crack in mid-note, emoting more.
The cover version of Brand New Key is unfortunate, the most obvious dud on the record, with an aimless vocal melody. Far better is the searching Spinning Wheels, where Browning’s voice takes on a Springsteen quality, as he also does on the quaintly versed Love Henry. Meanwhile Rodeoman asks pertinently, “what’s the point of making plans”, with a beautifully subtle brush on the snare.
If you have a penchant for alt-country, there’ll be much to involve you here. For those after the perfect sunshine pop record, however, I’d advise caution on when you listen to this.