Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Jan. 30, 2009
Talk about misleading or false impressions. The first song off Okay Okay Okay, the third outing from California’s The Santiago Steps, starts the proceedings just the way you’d hope an album-opener would. The song— titled, simply, “Boardwalk”—begins with an emotive, if understated, progression on acoustic guitar, an almost hesitant repetition, alongside casual bass and some equally casual vocal cooing. In some two minutes, a too-short two minutes, it gradually expands to include a borderline-haunting piano motif and violin that moans and swoons over the verses. (In that loosely woven sort of way, it almost feels like a forgotten instrumental from Songs: Ohia.) The record’s eleventh track, which helps book-end the 36-minute disc, is a song of a similar color, an introspective offering defined by repeating guitar figures, spare notes on piano, and wordless vocals.
So Okay Okay Okay both begins and ends with shades of low-fi folk-pop, something off-handed and engaging. The problem, for lack of a better word, is often what falls between.
About half of the nine tracks that take place after “Boardwalk” but before the closing “Song for the Sea” are perfectly, perfectly fine: they’re well-played, well-constructed pop-rock songs, some made better by the added texture of a trumpet or the thrust of an emotional, instrumental bridge. But they can suffer from a lack of daring, a lack of desire to break the mold. We’re treated to bouncy power-pop (“Love Is Small,” “Way Away”), full-throttled, guitar-crunched rock (“Breaking Ranks”), acoustic balladeering (“What We Left In The Trunk”), even a little unexpected foray into funk (“Gone Away”). But the songs – or, more appropriately, the songwriters and the performers behind them – largely tend to play it safe, opting to rarely stray from pre-established formula. As a result, there’s little momentum, like a car floating in neutral as it wanders toward its eventual destination.
When The Santiago Steps do wander off the beaten path and break free of genre cliches, the result is much more inviting. “Giving Way,” with its thudding percussion and digitally delayed shards of electric guitar, gets the blood flowing, even in eerily quiet moments when all you’ll hear is multi-tracked vocal harmonies, anxious bass and the distant whistle of a synthesizer. The timid “Red Mountain,” where reverb-heavy guitars and dreamy bass lead the way, flirts with something beautiful but runs a ridiculously abbreviated 49 seconds. The violin and breathy vocals steal the spotlight on the rootsy “Flatlands.” These moments should be celebrated and the listener likely will wish they were more in abundance. Why fall back on formula when you can do this instead? The answer is hard to find on Okay Okay Okay, a spotty record that’s only sometimes full of heart.
Some of the trouble with Okay Okay Okay is on display with a song like “Strange Obligation.” The record’s third song, it starts with a degree of promise — a jangly bit of electric guitar, complimentary male and female vocals – and comes to include bass, drums and violin, all in place, all well-played. There’s even something catchy and memorable about the song, maybe in the way that violin snakes between the vocals. But it never quite catches, instead merely shuffling through the verses and choruses. (Any semblance of subtle beauty is stamped out by the rock n’ roll testosterone of “Breaking Ranks,” which immediately follows it.) It’s not that the song is broken. You just wish it was given the same emotional punch of that album-opener.