It’s hard to think of a more appropriate introduction to Oh Pep! than “Bushwick,” the opening track from the Australian folk-pop outfit’s debut album, Stadium Cake. Starting off slow and spare — all delicate strumming and hushed vocals — it soon grows into something fast, boisterous, and baroque,
a statement of intent that highlights the group’s ambition to be more than just a folk act. About the difficulty of finding your way as a twentysomething (even Australians view Bushwick as a signifier
of youth, apparently), it’s the kind of song that doesn’t require an appreciation of slide guitars and banjos to dig.
Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs, both 24, have been playing together since they met at secondary school in Melbourne, and their comfort with each other is appealingly apparent throughout the album’s 44 minutes. Having already released three EPs — Oh Pep!, II, and Living — since 2012, this band is working on pushing its sound, previously more traditionally folk, in new directions. If you’ve listened to
indie rock over the past two-plus decades, you’ve encountered your fair share of folk-inspired acts, like Bon Iver and Band of Horses, or straight-up contemporary folk acts, like Lord Huron and the Avett Brothers. There are obvious similarities between Oh Pep! and some of these artists — acoustic instrumentation, a deep reliance on harmonies, plenty of twang — but on their newest endeavor, released June 24, Hally and Emmerichs don’t seem particularly
interested in following suit. Dreams of No. 1 singles may not be dancing through their heads, but they clearly have an eye on crossing over and proving that folk can be more cosmopolitan.
From the get-go it’s clear that Stadium Cake is a pop album; it’s simply crafted, using the tools of folk, bluegrass, and country. Uptempo earworms like “The Race,” for instance, could have been recorded by Demi Lovato, though she probably would have forgone the fiddle and mandolin. And even slower tracks, like the torch song “Crazy Feels,” have a belt-me-out quality. This is due to Hally’s piercing voice, reminiscent of Rilo Kiley–era Jenny Lewis and a clear highlight of every track. On Facebook, the group describe their sound as “sometimes foot-stomping, somewhat heart-breaking,” and, at their best, it’s an apt assessment.
Each of Stadium Cake‘s twelve songs houses a whole lot of craft. Recording the album in Nova Scotia, the band worked in multi-track for the first time. Songs like “Wanting” are packed with horns, pianos, and syncopated drum loops; such ornate instrumentation often creates impressively intricate soundscapes. There’s also a welcome unpredictability to many of the tracks — “Only Everyone” starts at a crawl before mutating into a lush, swaying Dirty Projectors–esque number — that shows Oh Pep!’s willingness to experiment with structure.
Taken too far, though, these virtues become cloying. The band could have focused on the hook of “Doctor Doctor” — “I know what I want and it’s not what I need” — rather than drowning the track in dense layers of strings, intricate banjo picking, and harmonies. And, clocking in at a little over five minutes, album centerpiece “Tea, Milk and Honey,” with its random assortment of crescendos and breakdowns, is
a slog to get through. Meanwhile, lyrics about the emotional roller coaster of early adulthood, mostly addressing an unnamed “you,” could have dug deeper, or used a bit more finesse.
Oh Pep! have crafted a engaging album of folk-pop, one that’ll be good for fans of the genre to put on repeat this summer. Only thing is, they clearly set out to surpass this audience. Hally and Emmerichs aren’t where they want to be just yet, but keep an eye on them: There are sure signs that they can get there.