Pasadena’s Ozma ain’t the next Zeppelin. In fact, they’re not even close. Their first two albums, Rock and Roll Part Three and Doubble Donkey Disc (2000 & 2001, respectively, both on Kung Fu Records) were, in essence, tributes to Weezer’s geeky, keyboard-laden rock. Definitely not groundbreaking stuff. Of course back then, it likely wasn’t an aspiration, but it goes to an easy truth: Some bands got it, some don’t.
That’s a funny thing about Ozma: They never did seem to have “it” inasmuch as it meant Sumpin’ Special. Those initial two albums of fun, frolickin’ rock fit snug and solid in the pop punk column, save their appropriation of the Cars’ siren-like keyboard sound (so often copped, nowadays, for quirk). Now comes Spending Time on the Borderline (Kung Fu), Ozma’s third album since forming in 1995. It begins expectedly, swirly, happy keys and crunchy chords on “Spending Time,” until about 60 seconds into the song, when it werewolfs into something more like ELO, a foreshadowing of it all going wrong—so wrong—but ... so unexpectedly right.
“It’s definitely a breakthrough for us,” says co-frontman/bassist Daniel Brummel. “We really grew up in terms of our sound and willingness to experiment with different types of songwriting and arrangements.”
Ah, the dreaded New Direction, a deviation from the norm, the result of which could potentially suck ass (see U2, Kiss’ disco period, and New Coke). But Ozma’s twiddling, against all indications, worked like a charm. On Spending Time..., they expand their horizons and reveal themselves as talented songwriters and musicians with reference points that skew wide and span decades.
People like examples: “Your Name” is slow pop balladry, ostensibly informed by Joe Jackson, Todd Rundgren, even Carole King. “Come Home Andrea” starts off like an Irish drinking song, veers into stomping blues rock on the verge of Blue Oyster Cultishness, then returns to and finishes at Pogues-ville. Initially, “Utsukushii Shibuya” is sonic art; strings, guitars, keys and flute playing an Eastern-ish melody that segues into another slow, sweet pop gem. “Restart” and “Curve in the Old 1-9” belie a roots rock influence, the latter flirting with Farrar-Tweedy songwriting with Jonathan Richman melancholy in the vocal, somehow interfaced with an oddly appropriate, insistent alt-rock break.
“‘Restart’ and ‘Utsukushii Shibuya’ were the first songs that showed us we could be happy with a new sound,” says Brummel. “After that, it broke wide open. ‘Come Home Andrea’ and ‘Your Name’ came in a flood after we removed ourselves from our old method of writing.”
Co-frontman/guitarist Ryen Slegr furthers: “[We used] strings, sax, a marching band on one track, 12-string acoustic guitar, a little flute, lots of synths ... and we kinda went crazy orchestrating it. As a result, there are more interesting sounds.”
He attributes some of the creative adventure to stress. This is the first time Ozma has recorded under a budget, since Rock and Roll Part Three and Doubble Donkey Disc were produced independently. That, and all signs point to the label, even fans, anticipating Spending Time On The Borderline would be Ozma’s breakthrough album.
“I think [Kung Fu Records] want it to be our breakthrough, because they’ve spent the most money on it so far, like they’re hoping they don’t go broke over it,” Slagr says. “I kinda feel bad. ... They spent more money than they should’ve. Being an expense creates underlying tension, and I think certain things about the album reflect that.”
And how. Kung Fu—and Ozma, for that matter—may not have to sweat the expense. Through experimentation, Ozma found “it,” as it pertains to them. They now sit in a new context, one that will see them step over the borderline that separates so-so soundalikes from bands with the potential to make statements and influence others to become not the next Zeppelin, but maybe the next—dare it be said—Ozma. Then again, maybe that’s not even a goal.
“I can’t even really think about that stuff,” says Brummel. “We book tours, play shows, write songs. Anything outside of that and getting [the songs] to the people that wanna hear them, I can’t care about. That’s the point, for me.”