My brother once gave me a mixed tape entitled “opera for people who don’t like opera”. I was reminded of that title when I heard the Montreal-based band Ought. For the diehard guitar-loving veteran indie kid, the band’s keyboardist Matt may be said to be playing “keyboards for people who don’t like keyboards”. He actually sounds like a guitarist, and moreover, like a Lee Ranaldo-type guitarist – playing strange chords, ringing arpeggios, melodious feedback and ever-evolving drones. Half the time you’re not even sure what instrument is making these sounds, as the keyboards parts deceptively interplay with the spikey and airy Telecaster played by guitarist and vocalist Tim, the other Tim’s eloquent and fat drums, and Ben’s increasingly crucial bass. And this peculiarity is just one of the myriad things that make Ought’s music so interesting and delightful.
Another special characteristic is that with his somewhat theatrical yet disarmingly unassuming charisma, Tim’s vocals offer a very specific kind of focal point. Stylewise, he channels an impressive array of well-loved voices from the 70s, plus their later admirers – Mark E. Smith, David Thomas, David Byrne, Tom Verlaine, Patty Smith, The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, Stephen Malkmus, Jarvis Cocker, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth – often all within the same song. Which, as these names suggest, makes for a compelling amalgam of poetry and irony, snarl and intimacy, ardour and knowingness.
With some arch lyrics, protracted segues and high-concept transitions, Ought seem at times to court the threshold of excessive cleverness. But they always amply avoid it, with loads of sharp rigour, affecting candour and winning grace. There are underlying complexities – nocturnally motoring passages, intricate puddles of sound, endlessly rolling drum parts, lengthy impressionistic stretches – but, especially in their superb recent album, Sun Coming Down, they are all encapsulated into consistently excellent songs. In many ways Ought’s music references not so much the post-punk of the late 70s and 80s as the golden era of US guitar bands of the 90s; bands who excelled in combining musical and structural innovation with emotional depth and edge, and who, whether they were relatively well-known like Polvo or a lot more obscure like Versus, Pony or Eggs, were equally intent on pursuing their own beautiful, aching and intelligent paths.