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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1390

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Virginia Coalition: OK to Go
by George Graham

(Bluhammock Records 1 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/19/2005)

Straight-ahead rock bands are too numerous to count, and with the pop music world moving to some extent away from rock as the best-selling genre, it's hard for a rock band to stand out, and the odds against hitting it big in the music business are considerable. But bands keep forming and trying. It becomes a balancing act to try to create a sound that will attract a wide audience, while still maintaining some degree of originality. And with the commercial music scene becoming ever-narrower in scope, that becomes an ever-harder task.

This week we have a CD by a band that does seem to strike the right balance between familiar and popular rock elements, along with originality and musical integrity. They call themselves Virginia Coalition, and their current CD, actually their fourth, is called OK to Go.

Virginia Coalition is based in the Washington, DC, area and around Alexandria, Virginia. The group consists of four friends who met in junior high in the late 1980s. They continued their association in the music classes of their high school, T.C. Williams, which was the subject of a documentary about its integration in the early 1970s. By the time the members attended, though, the school was a real cross-cultural melting pot. The group eventually released their debut CD called The Colors of the Sound in 1998, an independent recording, and followed that two years later by Townsburg which involved mixing engineer Mitch Easter, known for his early work with R.E.M. After their third CD Rock & Roll Party appeared high on Internet sales charts, the band began to attract more attention and was touring more widely. They were signed by a new label from New York, and chose producer Matt Wallace, who has worked with groups ranging from the classic alternative band The Replacements to the commercial pop band Train.

The result is a solid recording that has enough commercial hooks to attract wider audiences, but has lots of musical meat, with very good writing and tasteful musicianship.

The band's members, who their biography says can all play all the different instruments, are Andrew Poliakoff, who does lead vocals and plays guitar, Paul Ottinger on keyboards and bass, Jarrett Nocolay on bass and guitar, and John Patrick on drums. All contribute to the vocals.

Virginia Coalition, whose fans have come to call VACO, is a band who manages to pull some good things out of what for many other bands are just so many clichés. There are the power grunge guitars that turn around and lighten up to play some interesting riffs and unexpected chord changes. There are some funky rhythms that don't become restrictive. There are the roots-rock influences that don't sound forced, there are some lyrics about relationships that generally avoid the same old themes, and can sometimes be intriguingly oblique. And there are vocals that at first can seem reminiscent of the singers in many other bands, but Poliakoff turns out to be an appealing vocalist with a fair amount flexibility, and who tends to grow on you more as you listen.

The CD is arranged with some of the more commercial material at the beginning, however it gets more interesting as it goes along. The opening track Pick Your Poison is an example of the band drawing on popular commercial rock sounds. It's well done, with appealingly positive lyrics, though a long way from the best on the album. <<>>

The following piece, Last Goodbye, while still imbued with guitar sounds that could have come from thousands of other cookie-cutter commercial rock bands, does has much going for it, with interesting twists, musically and lyrically. It sometimes hints at the clever quirky pop of the British band XTC. <<>>

The band emerges on its own as the CD progresses. Walk to Work gets a bit funky, while the lyrics take a turn toward social commentary in a good-natured kind of way. The track also shows a more healthy dose of influence mixing. <<>>

Voyager 2 is one of the highlights of the CD, with the band stepping back from the commercial rock sound for more of a singer-songwriter mode. The lyrics are presumably about the spacecraft that has left the solar system with mementos of the earth. <<>>

Also with a funky direction is Bumpin' Fresh whose lyrics relate to fitting in sartorially with the crowd in school. Again, the piece is comes off as appealing and good-natured. <<>>

Despite the fact that the band does mostly upbeat rockers, Virginia Coalition seems to be at its best with laid-back material. Mason-Dixon has oblique lyrics which may relate to the racial situation in the band's once segregated hometown and school. <<>>

On the other hand, a good compostion by the band called Abby Are You Endless is spoiled by the heavy-handed in-your-face unvarying rock onslaught of the arrangement. <<>>

The last official track on the CD, before a hidden track at the end, is Places People, another appealing, upbeat piece that combines intelligent lyrics with a tasteful rock backing. <<>>

Virginia Coalition's new fourth release Ok to Go is a worthwhile album that strikes a nice balance between mainstream rock sounds and more subtle and distinctive influences. The band creates first-rate material, both lyrically and musically, they generally show tasteful musicianship, and Andrew Polikoff's charismatic vocals quickly grow on one.

The one problem I have with the CD is with its sound. I complain about this most weeks, but the problem of ham-handed volume compression is especially bad on this CD. Almost all the dynamics of the performance are squashed out in an effort to make the CD super-loud all the time. It's bad enough that the sound is distorted by digital saturation at times. It's OK to listen to at very low volume in the background, but it can be very fatiguing on the ears at any kind of foreground listening level. The bad sound signifcantly undermines the CD. We'll charitably give it a sonic grade of about a C-minus.

Sometimes Virginia Coalition can follow the pop music formulas, such as going from a quiet verse to a loud chorus section in a tune, which has become a cliché since the days of Nirvana. One could quibble as to how much they needed to do that, given the reservoir of ideas in the group, and the fact that given the still-small record label for whom they record, commercial super-stardom is probably not very likely. But most of the time the band demonstrate a fair amount of musical originality and have a smart, likable sound. It's music than can appeal to a couple of generations of rock fans.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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