here is no longer much fame and fortune waiting for catchy, often-energetic songs performed by what you could call the standard rock band set-up with big-budget, major label production (not obtrusive, but radio ready). You either aim at the indie market and all the invidious tradeoffs therein (much as you once would have at the pop market) or you whine like a twelve-year-old and try to make mall punk, or resign yourself to a life of semi-admirable culthood, taking part in that grand tradition of everyone from Big Star to Sloan (in America), Jellyfish and Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and the Posies. If you get lucky your audience will mount into a wave of acclaim that, although subliminal in terms of actual mass culture, provides the pleasing illusion of popular appeal (see: the New Pornographers).
It's hard to argue that OK Go has been treated any more unfairly than the other bands in their spiritual (if not necessarily sonic) lineage, but that doesn't make it any easier to take. They’ve been marginalized at the hands of economic forces and history (anyone who thinks boys with guitars are still at the heart of the pop mainstream has been living in the proverbial cave), but let's not kid ourselves: this is pop rock. In the best sense—shaggy-haired, wild-eyed tunes that are instantly appealing and retain singalong value after a multitude of plays.
Oh No is, if anything, even better than their debut, which now feels like it was trying a bit too hard. Everything feels more natural this time (maybe it's Franz Ferdinand's producer?), slightly less polished but still as forceful and hooky. As with most of their predecessors, OK Go play songs that sound like a party that are generally about heartbreak and despair, a sweet-and-sour match that now seems natural. This record is perfectly balanced; there are a number of songs that instantly appeal and keep you listening for long enough that by the time you begin to tire of those tracks the others start jumping out at you. The title “favourite song” has been bestowed on many: right now I think it's “A Million Ways” with its sleekly pulsing near-disco bass and pleasingly deadpan vocals from Damian Kulash, Jr. (you can only hope his name is real—in any case, his voice has improved tremendously whether purring or yelping, shouting or crooning). Tomorrow, though, it might be alien-invasion allegory “Invincible” or the perfect “woo-ooh-ooh!”s of “Television, Television,” the faux-macho stomp of “Do What You Want” or scorched earth caterwauling of “No Sign Of Life.”
I'm tempted to declare that the run from the ex-as-ghost falsetto slowburner “Oh Lately It's So Quiet” through to “Let It Rain” (one of those wonderful songs where the verses are even better than the chorus) is the most perfect stretch of songcraft I've heard all year, but when I listen to the rest of the album I feel like I'm leaving something out. Sure, I've captured the jaggedly exciting “It's A Disaster,” one of those songs that make fans believe that it would be a massive hit if anyone would just listen to it, but how can I leave out the closing duo of “Maybe, This Time” and “The House Wins”? The former is as close a musical evocation of your friend trying to diplomatically point out that you're about to drive off a cliff without enraging you into stepping on the gas as I've ever heard, tense and delicate at the same time. “The House Wins” is a great boozy roar of “I give up!” drawling “you don't have to be alone to be lonely / You might as well give in” over fuzzed guitar, retelling the Replacements “Swingin' Party” from the inside. But it, along with the rest of Oh No, isn't a downer, or even close to it—the music is too exciting, too compelling for them to pull a Radiohead. They're waving, not drowning.
Pop pessimists who wrap their good-time hooks around bad-time narratives don't tend to do well, but OK Go are so infectious, so enthusiastic in spite of themselves that they manage to strike the right balance. That ol' rock-band model is still hanging in there because every so often it tosses up something this good, another perfect 40 minutes that give the scattered faithful hope. Long live pop rock.