OO OO WA
BEAT KITCHEN, JUNE 25
Oo Oo Wa have a problem. No one takes them seriously. They don't take themselves seriously either, but unfortunately for them they don't sport the "correct" sort of insincerity that the indie crowd strives for these days. They unabashedly pay homage to uncool 80s pop groups like Crowded House and Aztec Camera instead of cool 70s ones like the Sweet and Cheap Trick. Oo Oo Wa will never make it into the indie-rock boys club because they don't practice Pavement's hip condescension or Superchunk's studied nonchalance. They don't wear thrift-store threads or make self-indulgent, incoherent noise. And they regularly commit the biggest sin in the independent rock world, which is to be caught trying.
The six members of the band, who hail from Dayton and wear suits instead of the requisite Flipper T-shirts or flannel, would be the first to admit that they sometimes fail at bringing to life their idea of well-crafted, melodic guitar music. Their first album, 1993's Screen Kiss, contained a little too much self-consciously cheesy synth froth for its own good. Lyrics like "When we take off in our rocketship / Will you kiss me once again?" are pretty hard to justify to any listener, even one not of the indie persuasion. And the suits--the same well-tailored dark threads they wear to each and every gig and in all their press photos--probably haven't helped. The conceit has gotten them noticed, but so far critics have dismissed them as neo-New Romantics and ABC-wannabes. And what praise Screen Kiss has received has been lukewarm. "The band doesn't rock. It probably won't be remembered decades from now. It is pleasant, however, and won't offend anyone," Tony Davis of Insider magazine opined backhandedly. But while the suits, the image, and some of their songs are jokes, Oo Oo Wa are not a joke band. And they do, in fact, rock.
At a recent show at the Beat Kitchen, the Wa boys proved difficult to dismiss as an early-80s retro-flashback band. Live the band echoes the harder-edged sound of David Bowie's early-70s glam-rock period. The band onstage is slick but not choreographed, professional but not too serious. They opened the show with a revealing cover of Bowie's "Breaking Glass." Morgan Taylor's letter-perfect yet searing lead guitar brought all the sleazy glamour of the song to life, and dissipated velvet-voiced crooner Nick Eddy was born to sing the lines, "You're such a wonderful person / But you've got problems."
On covers like this one, and fierce takes on another Bowie song, "Cracked Actor," and Suede's slashing, swirling "My Insatiable One," the tight, syncopated groove of the band became evident. No shambling guitar playing, no drums out of time, no instruments casually out of tune. Just intense, well-executed guitar pop that shook you right down to your toes. Some of their own songs fulfilled the potential displayed in their crackling covers. The title song of their recent EP, Train Robber, which, like Screen Kiss, was put out by Chicago's Limited Potential Records, brought to mind a rockier version of the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls," and "The Kiss Off," a smooth, piano-tinged melody that recalls the clean pop sensibility of Aztec Camera's Knife, came across as the best song they've written yet. In case the suits fool you into thinking that they're just nice boys from Ohio, the lyrics to "The Kiss Off" tell another story: "So this is the kiss off, let's just not talk for awhile /Your disappointment gives me strength, it's when you're sad that I smile." The rest of their live repertoire does bring to mind a cornucopia of 70s and 80s influences, from the Jam to OMD to ABC, but as they've grown as a band they've developed a raffish, rockier style that, er, suits them much better than their early, archly overdone material.
I think the main reason I like Wa is that they don't aim to be an alternative to anything. They are playing a kind of pop music that would have been at home in the 80s but works just as well now. The boys of Wa personally acknowledge as much of a debt to punky popsters like the Descendents as they do to the New Romantics, and several of them used to be in punk bands, but for now they are following their hearts by playing this kind of melodic, irresistible music. What could be more "alternative" than doing well something that the tastemakers dismiss as uncool? If Oo Oo Wa wanted to get their revenge on those who would dis them, I'd recommend that they get up onstage in jeans and T-shirts (which is what they all wear offstage anyway) and play the hell out of their most recent material and a few covers like the ones mentioned above. I'd much rather witness that pop celebration than the self-indulgent twaddle that passes for "independent" rock these days.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Luning.