Photo by Jeanne RiceJoe Ongie:
Full-Length Self-Released CD
Joe Ongie: Benevolent songbird or despotic audio god? You may recall that a few months back we profiled Ongie's music-making process: his sunless months sequestered in his Santa Ana fortress of solitude; the way he uses his PC-based recording system to bend every last particle of sound to his iron will; his creative process' dogged mix of inspiration and doggedness. Now the result is upon us—the 16-song Critical Darling.
In fairness, I should note that I'm a friend and sometime band mate of Joe's. On the other hand, our musical associations have been brief, likely because he expects some modicum of competence from his fellow players, prompting part of me to say, "Fooey upon your excellence, Joe Ongie."
But darned if he isn't pretty excellent. You know all that fine music by Elvis Costello, Matthew Sweet, Jon Brion, etc. that you never hear on the radio? Ongie's work is at least as deserving of media neglect. Like those more famed songsmiths, his work has a similar serious-pop bent, and his best songs aren't just good for a local, but could hold their own anywhere, if there was anywhere to hold them in this era of dumbed-down radio. But for the few who discover Critical Darling online at CD Baby or somesuch, it could well take up permanent residence between their ears.
"Sleepwalking World," for example, is a song that I couldn't pry out of my head with a steam shovel. Sometimes a five-minute song can convey as much feeling as a novel, and you've got something like Hesse's Steppenwolf & Siddharta here: evoking a mood the dawn can hit you with only if you've been up all night, of life on the precipice between ennui and transformation. I don't know how the line "Obscurity's knocking, don't worry, I've got it" looks on paper, but it's chilling when he sings it. Every aspect, from the muted, eerie arrangement to Ongie's hushed vocal, works in service to the song's pervasive, timeless mood.
Some other songs, such as "Unspoken" and "Vodka Chaser," are nearly as good, while some others are just songs, with overwrought if sorta exquisite arrangements and clever wordplay that never quite leaves the page; the remaining songs sit snugly between those poles. "Waking the Dead" reminds a bit—and nicely so—of Crowded House's "Sister Madly." If you can find a more upbeat pop song than "Better Than This," strangle it quick. "Play It Smart" (situated for your listening pleasure on the Weekly's OC Records site) gives a lysergic nod to Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles. Even Ongie's lesser songs have something to pull you in—an arresting harmony line, 12-string motif or organ chirrup that leaves you anxious for him to start obsessing over his next masterpiece.
Joe Ongie performs at the Gypsy Den, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840. March 6, 8 p.m. Free. All ages.
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