A Subtly Withering, Cynical New Album From Office Culture
Over the past few years, Office Culture frontman and keyboardist Winston Cook-Wilson has built a career as a musical counterpart to Neil LaBute. Over a backdrop of snarky (some would say ineffably cheesy) fusion jazz-pop, Cook-Wilson’s anti-heroes and anti-heroines do offhandedly horrible things to each other…because they can. Love songs for the screen-obsessed never sounded so casually cruel in this band’s crisply efficient hands. Their previous release A Life of Crime made the top thirty albums of 2020 list here; their latest, Big Time Things is streaming at Bandcamp.
It’s not as corrosive as the last one, but a close listen rewards the listener with big tells: this music is infinitely more subversive than it might seem from its plasticky surface. Cook-Wilson’s character studies often bring to mind Ward White‘s ominously allusive narratives. The album opens with Suddenly, a study in Aja-era Steely Dan funk-lite with an unexpectedly bracing bit of bagpipey orchestration from violinist Ben Russell and cellist Kristen Drymala. Does the user meet karmic blowback? “What will I find at the end of my big mistake, something suddenly changed?”
Bassist Charlie Kaplan and drummer Pat Kelly give the album’s title track a cold quasi-strut, harmony singer Caitlin Pasko adding a layer of Julee Cruise icy-hot as Cook-Wilson channels a similar ruthless cynicism, “Wondering if it’s you I should try.”
Guitarist Ian Wayne provides lingering, trebly accents over spare, blippy electric piano and increasingly lush strings in the third track, Timing. “The underdog should have won, did you hope you’d be treated the same?” Cook-Wilson asks. “Bodies stacked in the hall, so they heard every call, freedom fighters never went there at all.” A reference to plandemic-era remdesivir murders, death on a more global scale, or just a metaphor for interpersonal dynamics informed by a “kangaroo court” conscience? All of the above?
“Turtles all the way down, things were bad, but they’re better now,” Cook-Wilson intones over a light-footed trip-hop groove in Things Were Bad: over the last couple of years, he’s learned how to hit the high notes with his reedy falsetto. “I don’t need things to fall in line, I never knew where the line was,” he admits in the album’s fifth track, Line.
“We stuff crumbled receipts in cracks in the walls, so somebody would know we were here at all,” the narrator muses over deadpan DX7 electric piano pop in Elegance. Somehow the “I only want you to be happy” mantra amid the wafting strings is a little much.
The satire shifts from lyrical to musical in Little Reminders: what happens on the chorus is obvious but irresistibly funny all the same. And yet, Cook-Wilson can’t resist dropping the veil for some genuine poignancy in a shivery string arrangement
Likewise, the gentle funkdaddy bass, plush backing vocals and slow faux-funk of A Word are dead giveaways
Tell me in a few words
Show me it’s the thought that counts
Get some new eyes on this production, blow the crowd away…
I hauled that junk out of the yard on slow decay
I skipped four lanes, veered back into traffic
With the sky beamed red in flames
Cook-Wilson reaches toward a soul-gospel electric piano vibe in the final cut, Rules: “Nothing gets past me ’cause no one treads soft enough,” he reminds. This is one mean record.