The last time we played this one, it made all the emo kids really upset.” So Oneida bassist Hanoi Jane introduced the group’s song “Sheets of Easter” at a 2002 Baltimore show, and he was correct—unwilling to be pummeled by Oneida’s paisley hammer, the tight-pants crew left the room, followed quickly by everybody else.
It’s not hard to see why the audience bailed. “Sheets” is a cascading, hypnotic onslaught that requires the band to shout the word “light” for a brain-liquefying 20 minutes. The song reclaims psychedelia from the clutches of lethargic Spacemen 3 “Lord, can you hear my reverb chamber” faux-spiritual-drone-anguish and recasts it as itchy minimalist garage rock, melding Philip Glass keyboards to upside-down MC5 fuzz.
But the downside of making psychedelic music that your audience doesn’t have to be high to listen to is that you have to make psychedelic music that at least doesn’t make high people flee, and that’s part of why the Brooklyn band’s career so far has been harder to follow than a Damo Suzuki lyric sheet. Oneida’s had a unique sound since its 1997 debut, but for all the members’ great ideas—boldly pioneering the seemingly oxymoronic genre of “fast stoner-rock,” for instance—they’ve rarely been able to manifest them in a way that didn’t alienate any potential fans.
With Happy New Year, though, Oneida’s long strange trip toward focus seems to have finally come to a close. It’s the first of the group’s eight albums with a consistent mood—before, the band spent too much time chasing whatever obscuro genre it could fish from the dusty prog-vinyl bin. Any time Oneida settled on, say, amplified chamber music, you could rest assured that a Black Sabbath groove or a ukulele breakdown was imminent. Happy New Year limits the number of stylistic detours to an acceptable minimum.
That said, Happy’s stoner anthem “Up With People” still kicks off with some annoying, high-pitched keyboard farts (after all, one can only mess with tradition so much). Quickly, though, the band blossoms into a mechanical groove, staccato guitars and bass locking with a burbling delayed keyboard riff, and it’s downright clubby, an alluring halfway point between the 13th Floor Elevators and Arthur Russell. Keyboardist/vocalist Bobby Matador chimes in from what sounds like the bottom of an aquarium, “Sunlight shines on the top of the trees/The highest hills feel the sweetest breeze/You got to get up to get free,” and it becomes clear that Oneida has finally figured out that annoying people isn’t the best way to get its point across.
“History’s Great Navigators” makes use of Oneida’s trademark repetition, but instead of, say, building from softly clicking piano to pounding distortions, the patterns gradually blossom over a rhythm that would have been perfect as diving music in The Life Aquatic. Even lyrics such as “Carve the sun into a diagram/That reads to you,” typical of the band’s tongue-in-cheek stoner poetry, are presented in soothing rounds of melodic falsetto, rather than in shouts.
Album-closer “Thank Your Parents” couches the band’s psychedelia-should-be-sinister thesis in deceptively pleasant vocal harmonies. “Laying in the petals/Dust becomes the smoke,” sings Matador as ethereal voices swoon about his utterance. It seems pretty comfortable until the paranoid couplet “Fly into the flower/Until it makes you choke” reveals a head space closer to the Spahn Ranch than to Woodstock.
The Wicker Man–esque “Busy Little Bee” is a particularly well-conceived medievalist psych-ballad, a breath of air between hypnotic stompers. Reversed bell sounds provide a foundation for a gently picked lutelike instrument, while Matador sings the ridiculous A-A-A rhyme-scheme chorus “Busy little bee/A dance will make you free/Rest yourself on me/A sting before you flee.” “Thunder Road” it ain’t, or even “Corn Riggs and Barley” for that matter, but Oneida’s willingness not to take itself too seriously only makes it look worlds smarter than the legion of contemporary bands trying to transmit the same influences in complete earnest—not to mention another sign that the band that snarkily dubbed its third record Come On Everybody Let’s Rock! has finally chilled out.
On “You Can Never Tell” Oneida even manages to extract one last decent tune from the Velvet Underground’s corpse, subtly channeling John Cale’s viola drones and Nico’s throaty Nordic vocals without sounding like they’re simply imitating their literate-psych forebears; that lack of posing may be Happy New Year’s biggest achievement.
Oneida adheres to neither the myths nor the accoutrements of psychedelia—no fringe jackets, greasy hair, or scripted self-destruction for these fellows. The group has always played hippie music for laughs, keying in on the goofy “psychotic reaction” of early stoner bands like Count Five even as it strove for the casual awesomeness you expect of musicians who sincerely believe they’re communicating with the cosmos. With Happy New Year, Oneida has figured out how to do both, which means more than just an album that normal people can enjoy—you may just have to make some room for a few emo kids the next time you see them, too.CP
Oneida plays with the Apes and Awesome Color at 8:30 Tuesday, Aug. 1, at the Warehouse Next Door, 1017 7th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 783-3933.