Everybody has their own opinion of who Ought sounds like, except Ought. When reviewing their 2014 breakout album More Than Any Other Day, Rolling Stone compared them to "David Byrne staring at his own reflection in the bottom of a glass," while Drowned in Sound commented that “Ought meld proto-hipster touchstones like Richard Hell, The Modern Lovers, Shellac and Talking Heads,” and Pitchfork used this set of adjectives: “Velvet Underground drones (via the omnipresent hum of keyboardist Matt May), Feelies speed-jangle, daydreamy Sonic Youthian sprawl.”
Yet, if you take Ought bassist Ben Stidworthy at his word, these comparisons are “definitely not purposeful.” He continues, “Speaking personally, I never listened to The Fall, I never listened to Talking Heads, I never listened to Wire, I never listened to The Feelies … the only band that we’ve gotten compared to that I’d actually listened to before [recording] the album was Television.” In fact, Stidworthy says that he “found out about half of the bands from the reviews of our records.” And while some of the other band members had heard of the vanguards called out above, “even when we were playing shows in bars [before recording anything], no one ever mentioned it.”
This doesn’t mean Stidworthy doesn’t understand; in fact, he says, “I understand that when people want to talk about music and get people interested, they say ‘it sounds like this plus this…’ [but] it is kind of annoying. Especially because some of the things people are really talking about are really just Tim [Darcy, lead singer] and the way he sings and I know that he’s definitely not trying to pull this off. It’s just kind of what has happened over the course his life and development as an artist. I get it on one hand, because language is inherently restricting, you’ve got to explain something somehow, but at the same time, it’s … so many Talking Head references," he laughs.
If you’re curious just how many times the band has been compared to Talking Heads, just go ahead and perform a Google search with the keywords “Ought” and “Talking Heads.” Even discounting the explicit David Byrne call-out by Rolling Stone, you’ll find multiple pages of direct hits. In fact, even Constellation Records, the band’s own label, has this to say about More Than Any Other Day: “Ought's earnest, stately and exuberant post-punk is dextrous, deliberate, unfussy and fluid, with debts to Cap’n Jazz, The Feelies, Lungfish, Gang Of Four and early Talking Heads, among many others.” (Listen to the record below.)
However, just because it can be “kind of annoying” doesn’t mean Stidworthy and the rest of Ought aren't grateful to be compared to bands who have had such a profound influence on the history of modern music; quite the contrary: “Television is an amazing band. It’s not like it’s a bad thing, it’s not like people are saying, ‘You sound like Talking Heads and I hate the Talking Heads.’ It’s like, ‘I love the Talking Heads and you sound like that and it makes me happy,’ so that’s cool.”
And this is where, as a writer, I come in and state that while the band may not have expressly ever set out to recreate the sounds of the bands mentioned above, this familiarity is, perhaps even subconsciously, one of the reasons I am so drawn to them. For someone who was born towards the end of the post-punk era, which was littered with so many of the bands whose sounds are now being tied to Ought’s, I had, for a while, felt a deep sense of regret for missing such a critical time in music.
But now, with bands such as Ought, Protomartyr and Parquet Courts paving their own paths, I feel like I get the chance to recreate those missed opportunities. And in fact, the comparisons are a big reason why I checked out Ought in the first place, but in saying that, they aren’t the reason I’ll be spending my Friday night, October 16 at Bunk Bar down on Water Ave. No, the reason I’ll be spending my Friday night at Bunk Bar is because this band has found the ability to take an old-school sound and make it into something exciting and new.