O.A.R. (short for Of a Revolution) has always been an important breakthrough band in my hometown of Montgomery County, Maryland. The band formed in 1996 in Rockville, MD with the original members of lead vocalist/guitarist Marc Roberge, drummer Chris Culos, guitarist Richard On, and bassist Benj Gershman. After the modest success of their first two albums (The Wanderer, and Soul’s Aflame), which was built off of a strong word-of-mouth and relentless touring, the band set to record their first major stamp on the music world with Risen produced by John Alagia (Dave Matthews, John Mayer). Much to the band’s surprise, and label’s delight, the record debuted at #11 on the Billboard “Internet Sales” and #66 of Billboard’s “New Artists” Charts respectively. It was becoming clearer that the “local band” was poised for big things, as this record would open the door for multiple major label offers. O.A.R. have recorded eight studio albums to date and still continue to play to large crowds all across the world due to their energetic live shows and armed with a discography of well-known songs. Risen features three re-recorded songs from their sophomore effort, Soul’s Aflame and one from their debut, The Wanderer. This set of songs are still widely used in their live sets, and feature some of their longtime fans’ favorite tracks.
The album opens with the vibrant and welcoming song, “Hey Girl,” that features some well-placed organs in the background similar to The Wallflowers’ style. Roberge commands the track from the beginning as he sings, “I took this girl out last night and we left around 12 / We walked along lonely streets and got to know ourselves / I like to read – she likes to write / She likes to sleep – and I like to stay up all night / My friends say I’m crazy and I agree / But that’s okay cause that the way she likes to be.” Also evident on this song is saxophonist Jerry DePizzo (who joined the band in 1999) who makes the band feel more rounded out.
”Delicate Few” is a mid-tempo rocker meant for massive amphitheater sing-a-longs with the “whoa-oh-oh” chorus and a simplistic beat to help the band further accentuate every note. The solo by guitarist Richard On is brilliant, and the song does a complete 180 turn at the 3-minute mark as O.A.R. changes up the tempo and direction of the track to make for an unpredictable listening experience. The Dave Matthews Band comparisons are fair on this song, but I always felt like O.A.R. was more approachable in their down-to-earth songwriting style and grassroots campaign of getting their music out there.
The following song, “Hold On True” features some casual campfire acoustic guitar strumming by Roberge as Richard On provides a spiraling guitar riff to add some interesting notes to the track. Drummer Chris Culos provides some nice fills in between Roberge’s vocals, and the near-ballad track never drifts too far from the roots rock the band has become known for. “If Only She Knew” is largely built around the opening riff, while DePizzo’s saxophone and On’s guitar riffs makes for a crowd-pleasing song in the early stages of the album sequencing. The riffs get heavier on the final repeated chorus of, “If only she knew, what would I do? / Would I run? / Maybe stick around just for fun / Would I take you out just us two? / That would be grand, if only she knew.” Overall, it makes for a great way to get the audience attached to Roberge’s every word.
Other songs that stood out to me on repeat listens were live set staples such as “She Gone (Only in Dreams)” with it’s stellar and pulsating bass line, and the vibrant sing-along moments of “King of the Thing.” The band best known for their cult hit “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker” showcased their improved songwriting on the latter track with some well thought out song arrangements and improved lyrics. Roberge sings in the bridge, “So here we appear, the rest lost themselves in a pit of fear / For who? What can I do? / But let them all come through the wall / And though some oppose, many of these things I know / I’ll stay here alone, and lose myself on the river ways of days / I’m coming home” and further displays how he has a knack for telling unique stories through his songs.
”Night Shift” remains one of the more popular songs on this album, and for good reason. It features some great hooks and tight production from Alagia, that allows for him to hone in on each of the strengths of the band members that make up O.A.R. The song is an ode to the working man of someone who wants the best for their partner, but may not have the means to make it happen.
”About Mr. Brown” is one of my all-time favorite O.A.R. songs to date and one I look forward to every time they play live in my hometown. For those skeptical of the pop rock songwriting chops of this band, be sure to check out this song. Roberge tells a great story in the conversational lyrics of, “Say Mr. Brown how about your daughter / Do you know what she’s done with her life? / And do you agree that we are lost here? / Well, among the lost we shall survive.” The song just grooves along casually, but the band always bring something a little extra to their trademark song during their live shows.
The beat picks up slightly on the Americana-flavored “Someone In the Road.” It’s another great example of Roberge being captivating in his lyrics by telling some unique and interesting stories of his travels and the people he comes across. Album closer, “Here’s To You” is in many ways a love letter to their fan-base who have stuck with them from the beginning of playing local bars and restaurants. When the tempo changes towards the end of the song, it’s almost as if the band are speaking directly to their fans as they sing passionately, “From this day on, I swear to you true / I say now way back when you and all your friends / Had some good times we should do this again we’d say / Hey, hey, hey we should do this again, we’d say / But in the mean meanwhile, I’ll just walk the mile / I won’t look back won’t forget your smile / Oh no, hey hey hey we should do this again, we’d say / But I swear to you true / From this day on I swear to you true I swear I do I.” It’s hard to not hang onto every word Roberge sings and believe him as he makes his last ditch effort to make people care about his music and his story to tell.
O.A.R. have since played massive shows such as selling out Madison Square Garden and made their mark on pop music with hits like “Love and Memories,” “Peace,” and, the Top-40 smash “Shattered (Turn the Car Around).” However, I think in some way this group of friends who have stayed together since their humble beginnings in high school in the late 90′[s may just be more proud of their earlier work that allowed them to do this career path for the rest of their foreseeable future.