The yellow record label on OK VANCOUVER OK’s new food Shelter water LP reads: “CAPITALISM DOESN’T WORK AND IT MAKES YOU SAD”. That’s an unusual observation, isn’t it? Not exactly a call to arms: CAPITALISM SUCKS AND IT MAKES YOU PISSED OFF! No, in OK Van’s world, it’s sad, it’s tragic. What hope do we have for our children and the planet when our collective fixation with money & property blindsides our motivation to meet even the fundamental needs people have for safe food, affordable shelter and clean water? The marvel is that the folks in OK Vancouver OK meet adversity head-on with optimism, alternative vision, and stubborn resistance through Jeff Johnson’s poetic and heartfelt songs.
OK-V-OK’s music is by turns a rocking celebration and a sincere meditation on loved ones and community.
The rockin’ side is not all that far removed from the sweeter moments of Greenbelt Collective or the more far-out moments of Collapsing Opposites. (Jeff Johnson and bassist Liza Moser have done stints in both Vancouver bands.)
There are fun and funny bits, like the backmasking that turns the title track’s call for “food & water, shelter over” into a kind of psychotropic anthem in 6/8. There are sublime instrumental passages, such as the Television-esque build-up that closes “Pit House Tree House”. On album highlights like “Griselda” and “What’s My Memory For?”, Moser plays bass with an uncanny sense of how to bring out the best in her two bandmates, elaborating Johnson’s melodic guitar while marrying it to a steady pulse. Laura House’s drumming is muscular, heartbeat of the earth. I especially love the wake-up! cymbal crashes that punctuate “I’ve been since I’ve been loving you”, nailing down Jeff & Liza’s crunchy, loping 9/4 riff.
On vinyl, Jeff Johnson’s deeply felt, often anguished, stage voice gives way to a softer, fuller vocal sound that recalls Buffalo Springfield-era Neil Young. Eli Moore and Johnson’s production make the most of the album’s introspective moments, often with cool details that reward careful listening, like the quiet sound of flowing water briefly heard in “I want children to swim in a river they can drink from”. Meditative songs like this one and “Loving You” have a reverential feel, heightened by organ or choral voices.
Almost all the songs on food Shelter water are about love and loved ones, and finding a place where they can just be happy enjoying simple pleasures together–gardening, camping, swimming, raising a family.
Is this too much to ask? If you’re living on the margins, it’s like asking for the world. Homeless and living out of a car for over two years, Johnson and House come by their politics honestly, as a direct response to what they have (each other, their community) and what they lack (“No house. No toilet. No kitchen. No access to heat on a switch”).
Johnson’s gift is to sing about links between capitalism and personal well-being as he feels he has experienced them–and to connect his listeners with them on an unusually honest-to-the-point-of-vulnerable level.
He is totally explicit about it in “At home in the garden”. “In my mind I’m going mad. still get blackout even though I’m happier now. what else to do but keep the planet clean with food growing all around. water clean, air clean. shelter comfortable we can relax a little more.” Everything-in-its-place eco-consciousness as a form of personal salvation. These are words from a person who knows the toll of scarcity, but also finds confidence and satisfaction in being part of the solution.
But it has to be said, one of the things that makes this album so real is the gnawing feeling that without the compassionate partners who help Johnson to steer the ship here, he could become lost in a fog. “My life feels like a dream. Sometimes it feels so real. The dream part seems to last most of the time”. In a brilliant displacement, these lines are sung like a summer breeze by guest vocalist Ashley Eriksson. Then, in a frayed voice, Johnson suggests the price paid for this in-between life, “Shelter gone. Dirty water. A snowman in the sun”.
Not long ago I had a conversation with someone lamenting the further erosion of connection between music and the environment, community and music scenes which nurture a natural, regional sound and artistic vision–the idea that mobility and immediate access to any and all music from around the globe has uprooted music-making from locale. OK VANCOUVER OK are very much the exception. This beautiful album could not have been made anywhere else, for better and for worse. Have a look in the mirror.
Food Shelter Water
Released on Kingfisher Bluez/Lost Sound Tapes
Listen here: http://okvancouverok.bandcamp.com/
Photos courtesy of Steve Louie