Romance (Joyful Noise Recordings) presents Brooklyn avant-rock juggernaut Oneida at its punchiest and most concise. The band’s first studio album since 2012’s sprawling A List of Burning Mountains only tops seven minutes twice.
As with most of Oneida’s best work, the sensual qualities and weight of the groove are the primary elements. “Lay of the Land” presents a landscape corroded by hard weather and viewed from an ominous height. A crime-movie motorik groove pushes onward while guitar distortion and sweet synth lines dance between foreground and back. The thudding, shuddering grind of “Cedars” shifts the meter and patterns, reminding the listener of individual trees and the awe-inspiring whole of the forest.
In four minutes, “Reputation” radiates the exhaustion born from working or partying—or both. Its slinky, menacing bassline bursts through the rotating keys and drums, holding back until the guitar line shows the full extent of the damage. “Cockfight” leans into classic Bad Company territory, crumpling and complicating the picture but not engaging in parody. “Good Cheer” has a similar party-going-off-the-rails feel but with a faster edge that intimates the speed and thrust of jungle without quite aping that brand of techno.
Romance treats vocals with a refreshing irreverence. They’re obscured, mutilated, heat-blistered, and frayed at the edges, but never feel tossed off. “Lay of the Land” slides between a low-pitched lounge singer on cough syrup voice and a quivering falsetto, inviting the listener to assign different characters to both or wonder if one is something concrete and the other is in the singer’s mind.
On the aforementioned“Cockfight,” Oneida deploys the kind of wry humor for which they rarely get enough credit as the lyrics wink at rock star cliche in a cracked swagger. “Baby Jane has come to your town, and I wanna spread all of my fucking love around,” before a command of, “Take it to the bridge!”. They also hint at something more complicated troubling the character. “Cedars” blurs voices with overlap until they rise together on the chorus, “Every cedar started as the seed,” creating a simultaneous plaintive cry from the darkness and a growling statement of intent. “Good Cheer” raises that voice to a fever pitch, straining to stake out space in the soundscape: “Why would you lie when we both know you’re trying? We both know you’re dying… We want you to be of good cheer. Always the soul of good cheer.”
Oneida understands the power of setting up a vocal and then subsuming it. The most exciting part of “Cedar” is the brittle, sparking guitar that seeps through the cracks of the vocal and rises until the vocals and drums are drowning in it. “Good Cheer” grinds to a halt and restarts, all creaking joints and straining muscle.
As obscure as it can be and as coded as it gets, Romance never feels like an artist just “making shapes.” These songs are developed ideas about something, shone through Oneida’s artfully cracked, idiosyncratic window on the world.