Burlington trio Oak are one of the most interesting and musically talented groups I've ever heard locally, and I don't think they've been together for even a year.
The band, which features multi-instrumentalists Sara-Paule Koeller, Toby Aronson and Chris Kunitz, play a near-indescribable form of music that bears similarities to avant-garde classical, prog-folk and experimental. I know, I know - a ton of acts are getting their "post-everything" groove on these days. But what makes Oak stand out is their compositional integrity.
Koeller is an oboist, an instrument not often heard on non-classical albums. Her playing throughout these EPs is stately and refined, evoking both minimalist Japanese music and pastoral Americana à la Aaron Copland. A classically trained guitarist, Aronson provides lilting six-string accompaniment on numerous tracks. I'm not sure what the hell Kunitz plays, but he does a damn fine job of it.
EP 1 opens with "Julia Set," a swirling musical meditation that trades off between fervent acoustic strums and what sounds like toy piano. Full-bodied percussion provides a sense of motion, as the song slowly fragments into a mellow oboe-guitar duet. Later, the music picks back up, only to be consumed in a hazy web of undifferentiated tone.
"Gravel Pit" features a huddle of found sounds augmented by electric guitar, oboe and relaxed but deliberate bass. At around 3 minutes long, it's the shortest of Oak's numbers. The song is absolutely mesmerizing despite its relative brevity.
Contrapuntal composers such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley inform the needle-prick tonalities on "Chaparral." It's followed by closing cut "Spikes," one of the most elegant instrumentals I've had the pleasure of hearing.
As good as EP 1 is, EP 2 is even better. It arrives via the sublimely hypnotic "Do the Work of Two With One," which is the sole Oak composition to feature vocals. Koeller, who doesn't so much sing as intone flecks of sound, possesses pipes perfectly suited to the lovely instrumentation.
"Whoever Brought Me Here Will Have to Take Me Home" features what I'm guessing is hurdy-gurdy - an old-time, hand-cranked drone device. In addition, there are ghostly arcs of what could be viola, slide guitar, oboe or all of the above. With sounds this compelling, who cares how they were generated?
My favorite cut on EP 2 is the muted and somewhat sinister "Thelema," and not just because it's named after late British occultist Aleister Crowley's mystical organization. Nope, I like the tune because of its gradual build and narcotic charm. Actually, it put me in a bit of a trance - at work, no less.
Oak should already be on one of two Canadian labels: Alien 8 or Constellation Records. Montréal's just up the road, guys - make it happen. Hear them live on Monday, April 30, at Winooski's Monkey House with Uncle Woody Sullender & Kevin Davis, Mr. Shopping and A Snake in the Garden.