Happy New Year
By the time you hear Oneida's new album, the studio they recorded it in will have been demolished, yet another victim of Williamsburg's wave of gentrification. Earlier this year, the band got kicked out of their old rehearsal space/recording studio to make room for the condominiums that seem to be erected every day in Brooklyn, continually displacing the residents they seek to house. Settled but a block away in the shadows of its former locale, the new studio, dubbed the Ocropolis, still requires some home improvement. I meet drummer Kid Millions after a day of hanging doors there, his red tee sullied with dust and bits of drywall. He's beat, but happy with how the project has progressed in a month: "I work during the day and I go build at night." He smirks. "It's gratifying, but I'm ready for it to be done." The Ocropolis is an ambitious remodeling job—he's adding a control room to the live space—with animal pelts lining the walls and silk-screened posters decorating the ceiling. Millions hopes that the space will allow them to continue recording Brooklyn bands for their imprint, Brah. There is satisfaction in the labor itself though: "We put it together ourselves, for better or for worse."
To say that Brooklyn-based trio Oneida is out of step with the times (and the real estate market) is an understatement. Their eighth full-length is titled Happy New Year, but it was released this week. In an era where one band's promising debut leads to ever-diminishing returns by the sophomore release, Bobby Matador, Hanoi Jane, and Kid Millions continue to galvanize and streamline their sound to stronger effect some 10 years on. They've weathered the second coming (and going) of NYC rock, electroclash, and freak-folk, even while incorporating subtle strands of rock, electronics, and folk into the sonic frenzy they were notorious for in their early days. Yet, while the trio keep their day jobs, opening bands, peers, and old neighbors garner critical accolades and major-label deals.
"We just can't be popular," sighs Millions. "And I don't say that defensively or apologetically." We're shuffling along a miniscule Brooklyn backstreet that ends on the banks of the East River in a small park. The tiniest of enclaves, it's a secret spot that houses kids at play in evening's waning light, while young lovers sneak a kiss on the shore's shadows. Further back, the older folks sit on a bench to absorb the city's distant luminance on the other side.
Millions's tone is less of resignation and more of understanding Oneida's place in the grand scheme of things. "We just try to do what we can and have it be fully realized," he says. Now there's less time for band business, as Matador teaches English and history to middle schoolers in Boston and commutes down on weekends, while Jane recently got his master's in social work. Millions begrudgingly keeps with the grind of his day job in IT, though such work does have its payoff: "We don't compromise our music because we don't have to make a living doing it. What we do works now, so it's more important to [just] keep it sustainable."
One thing that such longevity has taught the band is the nature of change itself. Originally a four-piece founded by Millions and his high school buddy Bobby, the group centered on frontman Pappa Crazee. It was no misnomer: "The name, it fits," Millions says with a sly grin. "[Back then] Oneida was like an assault, full-on noise. Crazee was so out of control [and] we were like the rhythm section behind that." In August of 2001, having just bought a van to tour the country in earnest, Crazee quit to focus on his country-roots project, Oakley Hall.
A month later, the landscape of New York changed for good and the band had to reconsider its options. "We just slowly grew into the trio. We learned what it meant to have more space," Millions explains. "[Now] the way we work is so personal, really detailed, focused, and consensus-based."
A wider and wiser world outlook pervades Happy New Year. Sonically, it's their most fully realized work, a distillation of past glories into the present moment. While their high-octane psychedelic pummel (equal parts Can and Silver Apples) isn't abating anytime soon, the garlands of pop-baroque arrangements from last year's gorgeous The Wedding also remain intact, the two extremes expertly joined. For the title track, helixes of analog squelches and harpsichord intertwine, while a tacky, buzzing piano propels "History's Great Navigators" and "Thank Your Parents." Amid the unrelenting acerbic chug of "Up With People" (perhaps their most "dance floor" moment yet), there's room enough for bamboo flute to flutter past; the effect like a butterfly in a sooty power plant.
Lyrically, the album is their most focused and cohesive yet. The vaguely liturgical incantation that opens the album realizes that "pleasure only blooms to die," while "You Can Never Tell" grimly perceives, "Cities turned to dust/Forests turned to stone." Seasons flicker past with frightening velocity, and they even warn, "Your body may betray you" on "Busy Little Bee."
A conundrum lies at the core of the driving, yet bittersweet, "The Adversary," their most dynamic tune to date. Illusions of time and dualism fall away as a group vocal drones, "Born to never know the truth/Undeceived at last/Altered only in your age/Now your time is past." Oneida sees how the sun similarly sets on both empires and Brooklyn neighborhoods, but continues to forge ahead regardless. Bleak though the lyrics may scan, their music is joyous, celebratory, resilient. For a brief moment, Oneida triumph in the face of history and obsolescence.