I’ll Follow You
have lovely memories of Oakley Hall. Three years ago, opening shows for the Constantines, the Brooklyn sextet played the gauziest of country rock music. There was lots of Rhodes piano. Ringleader Patrick Sullivan, a man known as Papa Crazee during his time in Oneida, had his hand maimed in a tablesaw accident; he seemed knotty and cool and unhinged. His harmonies with guitarist Rachel Cox were like dog kisses, sudden and wet and all over. Often I think they just threw Goat’s Head Soup on the turntable and play-acted the songs.
I’m so fond of these memories that it’s never bothered me much that the band’s recorded output has never approached them. Still, the band’s fourth album, I’ll Follow You comes with the Merge Records stamp and presumably a corresponding step up form the nickel-stakes alt-country they offered on two separate 2006 releases, Gypsum Strings and Second Guessing, cloudy alt-country records that simultaneously approached the band’s ramshackle performances and lacked their sense of weight and community.
Oakley Hall seem to realize their strengths, however, and on I’ll Follow You they continue to chase a plugged-in, familial ideal. The miniature riff of “Marine Life” that introduces the album laps at the song’s edges as intermittent power chords muscle through the middle. “No Dreams,” seemingly the same song with the “overdrive” knob wrenched an extra quarter-turn, immediately follows. A quiet, grown-up album this is not. Sullivan is a vastly improved singer, eschewing his purple-eyed stage presence for a pampered, well-fed croon. On “Free Radicals Lament” he transmits from inside a trashcan, a “preacher of ever-constant change.” “Rue the Blues” is a veteran’s travelogue: “Back on your feet / Going to use them to run away.” The disarmingly steady Cox grows old during the contoured verses of “Angela.” Sullivan and Cox are attentive enough to make room for understated fiddler Claudia Mogel, who keeps the band’s country flame burning when they flail and strut.
None of this, though, is enough to strip the album of a staleness and fatigue, like these cats have been doing this full-time band jig a bit too long. Their noses were not pink three years ago, Oakley Hall, and any increase in profile their Merge signing will offer will only require more of them: to be in love, angry, distraught. It leaves I’ll Follow You with a disappointingly thin margin for error: the title track gives off faint whiffs of post-millennial Pearl Jam. Cox’s “First Frost,” a proper, acoustic ballad, dries and wilts. Her moody finale, “Take My Hands, We’re Free” betrays its celebratory title with a minor-key drag. Anything not already mentioned is driftwood of the drift-iest order.
No one’s written this ‘lectric country song more times in the past three years than Jason Molina, but Oakley Hall is running a strong second. It is difficult not to describe every track as “churning.” …Whoops. When, on “Marina Life,” Sullivan sings “Woulda wrote another song / But I don’t know what the first word is / Or the chorus” it rings hollow because if I’ll Follow You proves anything, it’s that Oakley Hall knows too well how to write just another song.