- Derek O'Kanos, On the Sleeve
(Oak Honest Records, CD, digital)
While accepting his band's recent Grammy Award, Julian Casablancas of the Strokes was asked about the future of rock music. He gave all the cliché answers about there being room for all genres, etc., before adding a cutting addendum: "Not necessarily blues-rock, please. No more of that."
Casablancas' quote comes to mind while listening to On the Sleeve, the new EP from Derek O'Kanos. I kept thinking to myself, Is this the kind of rock we need in 2021? "Howlin' Wolf" opens the record with an overdriven, primal guitar riff right out of the garage-rock playbook. O'Kanos tells the age-old tale of feeling the world's stress and only being able to endure it for love. "Why does that light fade away?" he wonders in a plaintive croon. Then, "Truth be told, I don't know / I think I just went astray / Luckily for me I can stand on my own with some help from a woman I know."
Both the track's sound and the simplicity of its intent stayed with me. "Howlin' Wolf" is ostensibly a good composition; it just lacks any sense of surprise.
Perhaps O'Kanos has grappled with those questions, as well. In his bio, the Brattleboro-via-Connecticut musician labels his music "authentic and familiar; reminiscent of the singers and seekers who came before him." That's an accurate statement. O'Kanos' sound is intensely familiar.
However, O'Kanos has a wider range than the opening track suggests. "So It Goes" jumps ahead a few decades and lands squarely in an early '90s alternative-rock vibe, riding a driving beat and chugging guitar lick. O'Kanos plays every sound on the five-track EP himself, and does so quite well. That's always an impressive feat, even more so when the record sounds like a band. O'Kanos manages to impart as much character to his drums as to his guitar solos. And the folk sensibilities in his memorable vocal melodies intersect nicely with his garage-rock foundation.
Most promising of the EP's songs is "Shoreline Collision." It's a jaunty blast of pop rock, with a bouncing bass line and a guitar figure reminiscent of a Beach Fossils record. The track offers the clearest insight into O'Kanos' potential. He displays an abundance of talent, as well as the ability to flit between genres with ease. When he marries those qualities with less-regressive songwriting, as he does here, the end result is intriguing.
The upside of people gnashing their teeth over the sort of rock that should influence new sounds is that these things tend to sort themselves out, regardless of whether critics or musicians try to dictate what's cool. If the end result is what O'Kanos does here — crossing through genres as a chameleon — I don't really see a downside.
On the Sleeve sacrifices flow for a sort of variance, but for the most part O'Kanos pulls it off nicely. It will be fascinating to see whether he continues his shape-shifting ways going forward.
Find On the Sleeve at derekokanos.bandcamp.com.