REVIEW: HARRY OAKWOOD (MILLIONAIRE) – EP (2012)
Gimmicks don’t usually do it for me. However, in the case of Harry Oakwood (Millionaire), I have to make an exception. On their website, the London-based quintet claim they formed at the behest of of a millionaire backer who sought “to build a band of brothers who would serve him and act under his name.” Though the backstory may be camp, the playful quality of Harry Oakwood’s music and veritable jaunt of an EP more than make up for a little bit of cheese.
Their sound, though familiar, is unique in its mix of folk and bluegrass elements with ragtime instruments and melodies, giving an old-timey sound that still feels contemporary. Comparable at parts to bands like Elvis Perkins in Dearland, the songs maneuver well between the low-tempo and the upbeat, and explore themes from restlessness and youth to existential angst and political dissatisfaction; all held together by a vibrant mix of instrumentals.
The opening track, “Scared Crow,” serves as a great representation of the group’s aesthetic. Starting with heavy, troubled lyrics, the first half is marked by airy vocals and soothing harmonies backed by warm guitar. A trumpet divides the track in two mid-way as the second half contradicts the first: lively ragtime piano chords weave through the horn and vocals and, suddenly, the tracks takes on a much larger sound. The excellent , sing-along chorus brings to mind a crowded, ramshackle barn show with a whole audience clapping in unison. As far as imagery goes, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The ragtime feel continues in”Brothers,” a winding narrative of violence and blue collar woes. The rambling, prosaic melody is straight-up Bob Dylan, though slightly more endearing in the fringes of a little British lilt that poke through. Its roaring chorus solidifies “Brothers” as the stand-out track of the album, with its strength centered in the undeniable catharsis of commiseration; the unity in suffering that is the human experience. Though not happy by any standard, this is a song to take comfort in.
Though the first half of the EP deals with some weighty emotions, the last two are where things really get existential. The aptly-titled “Journey Song” is a restless narrative of uncertainty and exploration livened up by one sick harmonica solo, which there really aren’t enough of in the world*. “Empty Chair,” on the other hand, is a much more pared down musicality that makes an excellent alternative to the bustling of the other three tracks. Its juxtaposition of a very complacent melody with hyper-aware lyrics (“Take a long, long look at your life / Is it everything that you thought it would be? / Tell me: Is there something missing?”) creates a sense of discomfort that makes the listener reconsider the former songs before finding that they too have a troubled sense about them, and serves as a fitting outro.
There are certainly elements of Harry’s EP that sound green. Some transitions and instrumentals are disjointed, and some melodies could be more interesting. But, as a whole the songs’ strengths are in their ability to address complicated and troubling emotions like existential angst and fatigue, and turn them into an upbeat, lively musical experience. The tracks present a myriad of problems and offer few solutions, but still leave the listener with a sense of calm and contentedness. This deeper understanding of real, everyday emotion is what pervades Harry Oakwood’s music, and their method of working with it is what will make their progression as a band so enjoyable to watch.
*Statistics are omitted due to the opinion that, whatever the number, there still aren’t enough.