The Roy Owens Jr. are a tough sell these days. How can you pitch a rock band that aren’t obnoxious, that don’t think they’re clever, that don’t pout, or preen, or sneer? Unfashionably, their music does not conjure harsh geometric shapes or snow-covered horizons or heartrending cliff top breakups. They don’t even wear scarves. My wife once mistook one of their songs for Hootie & the Blowfish, and after an incredulous wince, I realized I could not mount a convincing counterargument. Their appeal is that broad.
Yet this Atlanta quartet remain obscure six years into their career, even in circles where obscurity is currency. It’s possible the Lemonheads’ vaunted comeback could stoke a revival they’d benefit from, but the ROJ aren’t so sheepish or cuddly. Their last Knitting Factory date culminated in a sweat-soaked, true-grit tear through Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak.”
Success is not a distasteful proposition to early-thirties frontman Andrew Quinn, and he is no backwoods recluse. His band has two East Coast tours under their belt, and a recent one-off single (the luau lullaby “Commercial Radio”) featured longtime friend Kelly Hogan, lately of Neko Case’s band. Quinn co-runs a small record label, International Hits, with the spoils from a midnight-candle design career that also informs his band’s top-notch concert flyers. Through the label, the ROJ enjoy national distribution, playing nice with PayPal, iTunes, and MySpace. Quinn has done just about everything you can to promote his band on the Internet, but has not received even the slightest recognition from its gatekeepers. And I think I might know why.
Over the last few years, my peers in pop criticism have celebrated the dourest, most difficult or deranged music they can find. In the anxious universe of early adoption, we seem to have decided that complexity and severity equal authenticity: We need to prove we “get” the death-dirge apocalypso fusion of Bowie/Byrne protégés TV on the Radio and the Arcade Fire, and the ill- defined nihilism of Deerhoof. But rather than question what these musicians are moaning about—and more to the point, whether their tangible conceits are sound—critics uniformly punt, hiding behind a cloud of subservient hyperbole. They are all “impossible to describe,” “genre- defying,” “miraculous,” and “completely original” if you believe Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and . . . MSNBC. Not only do the aforementioned bands hail from an established lineage, they are ultimately descended from the same progenitor (Pere Ubu), and are all shooting for the conceptual moon, which leaves critics a larger slate.
Simplicity, maturity, and resolve are abhorrent qualities now, polarized to pointlessness as hokey Springsteen nostalgia—the deplorable new Killers album, Canada’s overripe working-class romantics the Constantines, or cloying pastiche like Sufjan Stevens. You don’t hear stoic rock songs—classic rock, blues rock, even powerpop—about love and loss and wonder anymore, by singers who acknowledge their mistakes and move on. Rather we wallow in petulant regret, holding our cuts open, staring bug-eyed at the blood, never realizing that shock is a form of paralysis.
The ROJ understand that wounds heal, that very few things are worth getting that upset about, and to borrow a line from “Nearly Perfect,” from their 2002 LP This Is an Illusion, that “life is cruel, and very hard, and far too short.” Theirs is a tradition of populist positivity and empathy, which rock ‘n’ roll and the blues before it carried along with their sorrows. Today that kind of thinking—that kind of creating—is painted as a put-on, a nod to pasts frozen in time, to gods like Elton John, honest upstarts like the Minutemen, and humble, ambitionless crayon-scrawl bands like the Spinanes. But there are people who work this way all around us. Generally, they are embarrassed to promote themselves or court the press, and that is their downfall, but there is no preciousness or insecurity holding back the Roy Owens Jr. On record and especially onstage, where rock is supposed to shine, and where we seem to want to watch confused people performing confusing music, they’re waiting for you to sing along.