Based in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the band has been playing music together for over five years, but only recently adopted the name Other Lives. With an organic, orchestrated sound that incorporates elements of Progressive Rock, Folk and classical music, Other Lives draws its inspiration from a similarly wide array of sources: from historical events to the landscape in which the members grew up. Recorded with producer Joey Waronker (Beck, the Eels, Lisa Germano) and engineer Darrell Thorp (Radiohead, Outkast, Beck).
Back when members of Other Lives were a more instrumental outfit called Kunek, they made a beautiful, sweeping record called Flight of the Flynns. It was lush and inspired, and it caused me and my rock journalist brethren to take note. But although Flight of the Flynns had an overabundance of magical, orchestral arrangements (all of which translated well in their live show), it was obvious the group lacked the strong center that would help them appeal to a wider audience, as vocals in the music seemed like a garnish and none of the tracks particularly stuck in your head.
Now the Stillwater, OK group, comprised of Jesse Tabish, Colby Owens, Josh Onstott, Jonathon Mooney, and Jenny Hsu, is at the onset of an exciting deal with TBD Records (the imprint of ATO that was started to release Radiohead’s In Rainbows), releasing the self-titled, full-length follow-up to their well-received, also eponymous, EP from last year. And where their ethereal earlier music was pretty but fleeting, Other Lives takes a stronger stand, cleverly infusing a prevailing lyrical narrative and more instrumental diversity.
Recording Other Lives in LA, with Joey Waronker producing and Radiohead engineer Darrell Thorp, seems to have had a sobering and focused effect on the band. The album starts off with a sweeping, Turin Brakes-esque ballad called “Speed Tape” where flighty, arpeggiated piano riffs and warm, urgent vocals set the scene for the far-reaching and fantastical voyage to come. When the strings of “Don’t Let Them” hit, the album is off and running, and doesn’t relent until 10 tracks later, when the story has been told completely.
Other Lives infuse a lot of their home state of Oklahoma into their debut. The flat, expansive plains give the songs patience, long-view, and a quiet understanding of the enormity of life. There’s a windy feel to Other Lives as well, a rushing sense that fuses the tracks together, that seems ripped from a blustering Midwestern day, moments before a tornado touches down. The album is incredibly cinematic, invoking images of expansive skies and flat earth that the listener travels forward through, searching for signs of civilization on the horizon.
When a band’s instrumentation includes things like harmonium, vibraphone, electric harpsichord, mellotron, violin, cello, and lap steel, it’s easy to feel intimidated; the combination of modern and analog instruments could make for a weird and cluttered orchestra, or a pretentious one at the very least. But Other Lives wield their cumbersome pile of apparatus gracefully, choosing instrumentations carefully, and using them to create a larger variety of feelings—on “End of the Year”, the change from charming guitar-peppered opening movement to the darkened string-based middle section makes the song a story in and of itself.
Although they’ve evolved since their Kunek days, Other Lives can’t escape the associations with chilly, eerie, autumnal weather that were prevalent amongst Kunek reviews. It’s true that the music is infused with the same strange electricity and sense of impending dusk that a fall day carries, but Other Lives, as an album, is too fleshed-out and comprehensive to be completely described with just a feeling. As the title of the album’s closing track “Epic” suggests, Other Lives is an ambitious tome, ample enough to warrant a deep exploration that promises even more unusual and smart things to come from these Midwestern musical bards.