Friday, April 11, 2008

Ours - Mercy (Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy)

I discovered Ours while working long hours at BWI Airport. I was able to listen to WRNR, an independent radio station out of Annapolis, that luckily for me, played music not heard on commercially-owned radio stations.

I instantly fell in love with the acoustic version of "Sometimes" that they occasionally played, and after doing some searching on the web, I was able to find out the name of the band.

The next day, I bought the album, called Distorted Lullabies, off the strength of that one song, and after skipping through the rest of the CD, I was proud of myself for discovering a little-known band that kicked the living shit out of most bands played on commercial radio.

Jimmy Gnecco's voice was an instrument all it's own, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, it ripped through my soul and spoke to me in a way that few bands did. Maybe it was the connection I had with them, since I felt like I had discovered them, and I recommended them to friends whenever I had the chance.

But then again, maybe it was just because they were an excellent band, and Gnecco's lyrics were moody, depressing, and dark -- and that's usually the kind of music I like.

After relentlessly spinning the album for months, I grew tired of it, and hung it up to dry.

Then September 11th happened.

And it the midst of doing some serious soul-searching during the aftermath of that horrible day, I found myself listening to Lullabies again, and was amazed at how much the album spoke to the current times, despite being released almost a year before 9/11. Songs and lyrics took on different meanings, and it really opened up another window for me to discover this band and this album.

Luckily for me, I didn't have to wait long for their follow-up to Distorted Lullabies, as the band released their sophomore album, Precious, in the fall of 2002.

At that time, I had just gotten married, and was beginning a life on my own, free of my parents house and their authority. Precious was there for me at another important time in my life, and it will always be special to me because of that, even though it was a lacking album in many ways.

In listening to Precious, you could tell the band was being pushed in directions they didn't really want to go. Still, Gnecco's influence was able to shine through on certain songs, and his voice and lyrics were as strong and haunting as ever.

But when I listened to their flat cover of "Femme Fatal" by Velvet Underground, I had a feeling that Gnecco had compromised himself in a way that would change him and the way he dealt with his music in the future.

Boy was I right.

It is now 2008, a full five and a half years since Ours has released an album. It has been delayed numerous times, survived a record label dispute and label change, and even more delays.

Luckily, Ours toured frequently in-between albums, and kept promising his small but extremely loyal fan-base that a new album was forthcoming. Their live shows featured the newly written songs that Gnecco hoped to get recorded, and they were great songs, which made the wait that much more frustrating.

I saw the band for the first time in August of 2004 at Fletcher's in Fells Point, Baltimore. It's a small upstairs venue and the crowd was sparse but energetic. The band had sound problems and the show started an hour later than scheduled.

To make up for the delay, Gnecco played a 2+ hour long set, and when the band took breaks, he remained on stage, playing acoustic versions of previously recorded songs, as well as new ones.

After the electric set was finished, my wife and I headed for the exit, but when I heard Gnecco come on stage again, I immediately raced back into the club and listened as Gnecco played another acoustic set which lasted another half an hour and pushed his strained voice to the breaking point.

Gnecco is known for his fan appreciation and has been known to play short acoustic sets in the parking lot after shows for the few remaining fans. Unfortunately, that didn't happen for me.

Over the years, without a new album to look forward to, Ours disappeared from my radar. I discovered new bands like Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and The Walkmen. But I always looked forward to a new Ours album, and hoped that someday it would find a release date.

And finally, on April, 15th, Ours will release their third album entitled, Mercy (Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy), and one thing is for sure despite the long break in-between album releases -- this is the album Gnecco wanted to make.

He teamed up with super-producer Rick Rubin, who signed the band to his American label, a sub-genre offshoot of Columbia. It's the same label Johnny Cash was on late in his career. But whereas Precious producer Ethan Johns suffocated the band in forced trendiness, Rick Rubin guided Gnecco, giving him advice when needed, and allowed Gnecco to do what he wanted to do.

At first listen, Mercy is very much an Ours album. The soaring vocals of Gnecco are still there, but it's much more focused than Precious, and hearkens back to the epic moodiness of Distorted Lullabies. The glimmers of U2, Radiohead and Jeff Buckley are all still there and in full effect.

I'm still in the beginning stages of listening to this album, and I've barely touched the second half, but I can say this, Mercy is Gnecco's album and it's the one he wanted to make. So far, so good.

It was well worth the wait.

ALBUM SCORE: *** (out of ****)
BEST SONG: I Ran Away To Tell The World
SEE THEM LIVE: Yes! Expect to be there at least 2 hours.

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