Ram Jams: In ‘OK Orchestra,’ Drums, Violins, Insecurities, Oh My!

‘OK’ may be in the name, but AJR’s latest album is nothing less than great

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By ALYSSA MACALUSO and JILL RICE

Genre: indie pop

On a playlist with: Glass Animals, Fitz and The Tantrums, Weezer, Jukebox the Ghost

New York-based indie-pop band AJR released their fourth studio album, “OK Orchestra,” on March 26, and it is so much more than just OK. The three multi-instrumentalist brothers, the eponymous Adam, Jack and Ryan Met, once again converged in the living room to make music that transcends a single genre — their latest album draws inspiration from any and all sources, including pop, hip-hop, EDM, rock and even the subway guy.

The brothers’ previous albums have been based around their life events at the time, and this one is no different. From their debut album “Living Room” (2015), which centered on the band’s youth and obscurity, to issues of teenage insecurity and social pressures in “The Click” (2017) and fears about moving out in “Neotheater” (2019), AJR’s fans age with them. Now, “OK Orchestra” addresses the question, “What am I doing with my life as a 20-something?”

Meet the Reviewers

Alyssa Macaluso (AM)’s favorite band changes quicker than the weather in NYC, but AJR has always been close to the top of the list. She loves everything alternative, but also dabbles in folk, French pop, rap and tropical house. Though AJR hooked her in with “Infinity” on their debut album, her love for this group has only grown with their discography. 

Jill Rice (JR)’s taste in music lies strongly in alternative and indie rock, and she loves songs with interesting melodies and meaningful lyrics — qualifications that AJR always fulfills. She saw AJR in concert in 2018 and can’t wait to see them again soon (her mom’s last concert pre-pandemic was AJR at the 9:30 Club). Her latest Ram Jams was on the Weezer album “OK Human,” and both that and “OK Orchestra” were definitely more than OK in her book. The album art for this is especially beautiful, too.

The High Notes

AM: My favorite off this album is “3 O’Clock Things,” easily. Maybe it’s just something to do with AJR and the number three (“Three-Thirty” off “The Click” album is probably in my top three AJR songs of all time), but I love the EDM-heavy composition and the lyrics — they perfectly get to the heart of issues that keep you up at night (until 3 a.m.), including anxiety, sex and relationships, and past major life decisions. Plus, I will argue that no other song on the rest of this album contains a more iconic line than “It’s all a bit cloudy but there’s one thing I know / That if you’re f—ing racist then don’t come to my show.” Pure poetry. 

JR: I fully agree with your thoughts on “3 O’Clock Things.” Surprisingly, my favorite track on the album is “OK Overture,” a medley of all the other songs on the album. AJR has included an overture on every album, an homage to the brothers’ New York and theater roots. The first half has grown on me, but the second half in ¾ time was my favorite segment of the album since my very first listen. Tied with “3 O’Clock Things” and “World’s Smallest Violin” for second place is “Ordinaryish People (feat. Blue Man Group)” because it really describes the struggles the brothers face as musicians and how they can’t be “ordinaryish people” ever again. “I guess the last time you had any fun / Was way back when you weren’t anyone” reflects the same ideas of fame and being a musician across all four albums, from “Big Idea” to “I’m Not Famous.”

AM: “OK Overture” is definitely in my top three, and “Ordinaryish People” is pretty high up there as well. But my second favorite would honestly have to be tied between “Humpty Dumpty,” “Way Less Sad” or “My Play,” though I can’t listen to “My Play” without a box of tissues nearby. All of these songs deal with really mature themes disguised by playful, creative music. I think my favorite songs on this album track tend toward the ones with “The Click”-like beats instead of the more acoustic sounds of “Living Room” or, more recently, “Dear Winter” off “Neotheater” (though “Dear Winter” is also one of my favorite tracks, just not my usual style).

It’s so hard to pick some “just OK” songs because they’re all so good. Jill Rice

The Just ‘OK’ Tracks 

JR: In my opinion, “Bang!” is “just OK” simply because it’s overplayed but it’s still a stellar song. I’ve heard it too many times by now. “Christmas in June” is more than OK, but if I’m already feeling sad, I can’t hear this one. I’m not sure why the emotions in this one really get to me; I listen to Car Seat Headrest all the time, and he has approximately two happy songs, but “Christmas in June” needs a tear-jerker warning.

AM: “Bang!” and “Christmas in June” were not on my favorites list, but I would say they’re solidly in the middle, in the “good-but-not-great” range. “Joe” is one track on this album that I would say is “just OK.” It doesn’t bring that much to the table in terms of creative vocals, and though I love that they tell a story with it (and well at that), it just doesn’t resonate as much with the themes of the other songs on the album. To me, it sounds like it belongs more on “The Click” (2017) because it’s very similar to “Turning Out” or “Netflix Trip.” “The Trick” also has a spot on the “just OK” list because I’m not that big of a fan of the vocal alterations and ukulele-heavy instrumentals in this song.

JR: It’s so hard to pick some “just OK” songs because they’re all so good. “The Trick” is growing on me; it’s weird but funky, and I can see Ryan Met, the brother who sings and produces, having a lot of fun with it. I can definitely see “Joe” being on “The Click” rather than “OK Orchestra”; that’s a good connection to make.

The early release and the song’s popularity made “Bang!” less novel and exciting when it came up in the queue. Alyssa Macaluso

“Bang!”

JR: This was the first single released, and it really blew up on TikTok — good for AJR! But because I hear it so often as the first single, it’s not my favorite. As a former trumpeter, I love all the brass. It has the quintessential AJR sound, with the drums, piano, horns and more. If nothing else, this song has introduced the world at large to AJR and “OK Orchestra,” which can only be seen as a good thing.

AM: I agree that the early release and the song’s popularity made it less novel and exciting when it came up in the queue. I think that if it had been released at the same time as the other songs on the album, I would have liked it more, but since it’s been played so much and for so long, it doesn’t stand out to me as much anymore. “Bang!” is in a similar situation to “Sober Up” from “The Click” album; both are bops, and I’ll still jam out to them when they come up on shuffle, but they’ve also suffered from extended playtime.

cover art for AJR's OK Orchestra single "Bummerland." Cartoon instruments meld into each other in a circle

“Bummerland”

JR: A truly great and, again, quintessential AJR song. I love the instrumentation the most, and how they melded each instrument into the other. The cover art for “Bummerland” exemplifies this sonic transformation by having one instrument morph into another in the image as well. (A fan came up with the name “instrumorphing” for this phenomenon.) This one is so fun and peppy even though the lyrics are all about the pandemic and not being able to do anything fun. It’s a better single than “Bang!” just because it’s not overplayed yet.

AM: If there is a song that summed up summer 2020 for me, it was “Bummerland.” Summer plans nixed (including attending AJR’s “Neotheater” concert in August) and the jaded optimism that “we’re only going up from here” after the events of the past year perfectly captured the mood. Not to mention, the music video for this hit was excellent! From their matching lavender outfits to the dramatic drum scene in the water to Jack riding in an inflated flamingo strapped to the top of the car, it encapsulates everything goofy and wholesome about this group. Though “Bummerland” has been out for a while, my love for the energy it brings was renewed once I heard it again, and I’m confident that this will be one of my top songs going into summer 2021. 

“OK Orchestra” is no less relatable or thought-provoking than the rest of AJR’s discography.

Finale (Thoughts)

Overall, the rollercoaster of emotions present on this album, from worries about love to fears about growing up, made for a thoroughly enjoyable aural ride. The variety of tempos and the mix of peppy and nostalgic tracks make this an album with songs for any type of situation, and the content is as political and age-relevant as usual. Though these songs may not be as sing-along-able as ones on previous albums, “OK Orchestra” is no less relatable or thought-provoking than the rest of AJR’s discography.

In an interview with American Songwriter, Ryan Met said that he and his brothers “want every single song to be a concept that nobody’s ever talked about before.” And they have succeeded in that goal: Every AJR song is a journey, something very new and different from any other artist or even from their previous work. The lyrics and instrumentation place AJR in a genre of their own with songs that effortlessly cover any subject with any style of music.

Peaks: 

AM: “3 O’Clock Things,” “My Play,” “Bummerland,” “Way Less Sad”

JR: “OK Overture,” “3 O’Clock Things,” “Ordinaryish People,” “World’s Smallest Violin”

Valleys: 

AM: “Joe,” “The Trick” 

JR: “Bang!”

The Verdict: 

AM: Not as boppy as “The Click” or as dramatic as “Neotheater,” but the upbeat tones in “OK Orchestra” aptly capture the range of emotions both in this past year and the liminal space that is our 20s. 8.5/10

JR: If you are tired of sad pandemic songs, “OK Orchestra” is a breath of fresh air — it’s fun, it’s experimental and it’s relatable to anyone in their 20s trying to figure out how life should be. 8.75/10