Oulipo: Primitive High Art
By Linnie Greene
Give Oulipo’s latest EP a few measures and its title, Primitive Ways, makes sense — skittering beats and cavernous, reverberating vocals overwhelm as a few witchy howls drive the point home. The most obvious point of comparison for this Raleigh outfit might be Animal Collective; it’s certainly the most common. By that token, it’s a reference that Ryan Trauley, the band’s leader and architect, has grown tired of hearing.
“I think in the broadest sense, we’re just an alternative rock band,” he says. “I think the recordings are generally a little more cerebral, but I think live especially, we’re definitely just a band.”
In Oulipo’s case, “just a band” means an outfit whose youth belies a prodigious knack for songs that stand astride the boundaries of straightforwardness and abstraction. The six tracks on Primitive Ways are earworms to be sure, but the hooks are rarely the real selling point. Underneath resides something darker and, well, more primitive.
Trumpet bleats manage to sound almost sinister on “Open Wide,” the brass a lone, almost dissonant accompaniment to the record’s insistent percussion. Electronic flares and cymbals hiss like a roughly awoken animal. Rising above the instrumental melee, Trauley’s sparse, simply delivered vocals evoke incantations, as if these songs might be the electronic progeny of ancient chants.
It makes sense, then, that Trauley cites everyone from J. Dilla and the Beastie Boys to Radiohead as his influences. Given the band’s disparate muses, Primitive Ways is an appropriately far-reaching affair, one whose sound is difficult for Trauley to categorize.
“In terms of what I was thinking about, I was thinking of people that do really cool stuff with sampling, drum breaks and stuff like that — just really rhythmic stuff,” Trauley says. “I think we’re really trying, with the new EP, to not get into anything too — I don’t know what words to use. Tribal? Psychedelic, in any overt way.”
Part of achieving that aesthetic came with the recording process itself. With its five members spread around the Tar Heel state (Chapel Hill, Asheville, Boone, and Raleigh, to be exact), Trauley and company crafted the recordings methodically, layering sounds and sharing them helter-skelter via the Internet. What started as fragmented noises merge into a cohesive and dexterous whole on Primitive Ways, which bears little resemblance to the DIY bedroom project that it is. With its latest, Oulipo has cemented its place alongside older, more established acts, many of which possess a wholly different sound.
“We’re all really stoked to be involved with what’s going on, and I feel like a lot of really cool shit is happening in Raleigh,” Trauley gushes. “We’re definitely psyched to be a part of that.”
But Trauley’s aware that Oulipo bears little resemblance to bands that have put the Triangle on the national map of late. They share neither the charming folk experimentation of Megafaun nor the restless romanticism of The Love Language, but their complex and captivating style hints at an appeal that’s every bit as broad as those scene leaders.
“I think it’s kind of been an advantage in a way,” he says of Oulipo’s uniquity within its scene. “We’re seeking out new space that’s different from what some other people are doing.”
Name check Animal Collective or Megafaun if you wish, but the best explication of Oulipo’s approach resides within their own moniker. Pioneered by painter Raymond Queneau and company in the 60s, “oulipo” refers to an aesthetic of constraint and structure, one that evinces itself on the group’s latest. These are not, after all, the acid-washed jams that they initially seem; they’re great pop songs, built by offspring of high artistic theory residing in the digital age.