If the Brothers Met — Adam, Jack and Ryan, hence AJR — didn’t exist, Wes Anderson might’ve had to create them for another of his erudite forays into cinema. Or Pasek and Paul could have summoned the bros’ imaginary presence for one of their engagingly sophisticated stage musicals. Or Fran Lebowitz or Tama Janowitz might have dreamed them up to embody the bright young things of cosmopolitan Manhattan.
AJR, however, does exist in its own always-effervescent realm of the senses, one that, on its sparkling new album, “OK Orchestra,” embraces all of the above, ardently and poignantly. Beyond a previously double-platinum-plated singles like “Weak” and an alternative album chart-toppers such as 2019’s “Neotheater,” this fourth, flourish-filled album from the Manhattan-born trio is a harmonically vocalized, hyper-memoir-centric, atmospheric mélange of pop, hip-hop, and doo-wop with quirky rhythms and a salting of smart-assed They Might Be Giants for tart taste.
In short, AJR, particularly with this luxurious fourth album, is making some of the most charming pop since the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” — deeply rhythmic chamber pop without being hermetically sealed. Yet unlike so much other smartly fussy music that has historically bewitched and bewildered (e.g. the Kinks, XTC), there is nothing that arcane about AJR’s beguilement. Theirs is a thoroughly modern charm offensive, one whose rushing tone clusters and soft trap bits could reside as comfortably next to Drake’s “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” as they could Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows.”
Staged as something of a theatrical musical with a narrative through line and a glimmering, string-laden overture, the album’s opulent arrangements and sing-song-y symmetry act as a piss-take on Radiohead’s ruddy “OK Computer.”
Jack Met’s light and airy clustered vocal runs fill the delicious ragtime-hop of “3 O’Clock Things” with the sort of clammy college-class-sex-and-political observations once reserved for Donald Fagen. “Bummerland” offers the brotherly harmonists a wall of sound to croon before, with bricks made of skittering rhythms, screechy angel samples, swallowed trombones and what sounds like a cacophony of tuned bells and mandolins dunked underwater. That same skittering pulse, when combined with additional mallet-ed percussion, gives the nervous energy of “Joe” — an adolescent tale of believing in God and changing the family name (from Metzger to Met) — an adrenaline boost that should come with a strobe light warning.
Adolescence guided by off-putting FX is the key to can’t-look-away moments such as the fearful “The Trick” (who knew a dog trick could sound so scary?) and the get-a-job monologue “Ordinaryish People,” recorded with the Blue Man Group,
Using a hammered piano line and a rousing trumpet sample from Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” to create questionably weary uplift, “Way Less Sad” looks to eke out something approximating happiness at a time of isolation not solely connected to the pandemic. Turning his back for a moment on his beloved New York, an AutoTuned Jack cries “I don’t want to hurt no more / So I set my bar real low” before “Sad’s” pre-chorus: “I’m A-okay, I’m A-okay / You say it but you just don’t mean it… Shut up and just enjoy this feeling.”
Much of the back-and-forth emotion of “OK Orchestra” and its playwriting stems from a family dynamic that’s not always in sync, as one could imagine from two brothers who live together with the other one down the street. It’s not exactly Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” but you can imagine the tension.
Take “My Play,” the centerpiece of “OK Orchestra.” A warbling ballad with a quiet drum-and-bass shuffle, it finds the Brothers Met talking tenderly about the toys of childhood and the parents who tended to them (“I wonder if they found my spaceship”). Once the song “My Play” settles in, however, the album’s simple delights turn vinegar-sour, and its subtly rushed hip-hoppy vocals become a roaring operatic bombast of disconnect and divorce proceedings: “I put on a play in my basement / Mom and Dad’s smiling faces / But now I don’t know if they faked it / Guess everything is complicated.”
After the bruising reality of that grand separation statement, simply executed songs such as the circular “Humpty Dumpty” and the jigging “World’s Smallest Violin” initially miss the mark. But listen to those same tracks away from the dramatic sequence of “OK Orchestra,” and both (especially the cartoon FX of “Violin”) are gem-like wonders that sparkle brightly.
Closing with the happily melodic, tap-dancing “Christmas in June,” the Brothers Met, who are “trying so hard to be happy,” tell a biographical tale of growing up absurdly, yet dedicated to craft, with lyrics such as: “One big show will make them know my name / But if it winds up falling on our wedding day / Oh God, don’t make me choose.”
As they pair their love lives to the minutiae of the music biz with blown gigs and radio spots substituting for romantic interludes, you can’t help but mourn for the personal missed opportunities they describe, while applauding loudly for aesthetic achievements as strong as “OK Orchestra.”
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