Malcontented in the middle
by Katie Whitney
Several days after hearing the OffRamps play at the Elbow Room in Ypsilanti, I couldn't get the refrain of one of their songs out of my head: "You said you were sorry, but that really doesn't make it all right." Like most of their songs, this one pleasurably juxtaposes a catchy tune with ironic, often misanthropic lyrics making their music a little difficult to categorize. The OffRamps, aptly named, occupy some sort of musical middle ground. As their lead singer told me after their short and energetic set, "We're a little too accessible for the punk crowd, and a little too punk for the alt-rock crowd." Somewhere between the mainstream and the back roads, the OffRamps are most easily aligned with American underground bands like Hsker D and Dinosaur Jr. But whatever genre they call home, these three men lead singer and songwriter Jeremy Porter, bassist Jason Bowes, and drummer Mike Popovich deliver consistent rock 'n' roll.
The song I'd been singing "Hallmark Holiday" fits their genre ambiguity. When I took the time to listen to their last album, Hate It When You're Right, I found that what I had thought was upbeat breakup music had some disturbing strains of stalker pop: the lyrics mention having an ex-girlfriend's phone bugged and dressing up like a clown to scare her. I thought about Elaine's unfortunate encounter with a stalker clown on Seinfeld a comparison that fit not only the lyrics but also, at least slightly, the mood of the song. Although the words were mildly alarming (especially after all of my head-bobbing and singing along), the tongue-in-cheek use of the hook-dependent pop formula saved the song from creepiness, and the lyrics steered it clear of the self-deprecating emo ballads that are so popular with kids these days.
The OffRamps' new album, Split the Difference, features similar antisocial characters, but on this album, they aren't hiding. Toward the beginning of my favorite
track of the bunch, Porter belts out, "My hand's on the trigger of somebody's day," reminding me of a less earnest version of Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver." The track's called "Party of One," as in "I'm the life of the party . . . party of one," and it seems to sum up the album's alone-in-a-crowd discontent.
Although Split the Difference is as lively as Hate It When You're Right, it's much harder, with harsher vocals, more insistent drums, and the occasional hollered chorus. Songs like "Hurry Up and Wait" and "Short of Suicide" add to the edgy vibe and confirm the age-old artistic trope: dissatisfaction provides inspiration. Putting bad moods to good use, Split the Difference tempers its melancholy with upbeat tunes and stretches of predictably enjoyable melodic pop.
The OffRamps release their new album with a show at TC's Speakeasy on Saturday, June 7.
[Review published June 2008]