The fact that I've managed to review many of Exploding in Sound Records' releases to date without turning a review into a label profile demonstrates considerable restraint. It's an easy but now-overdue narrative; it's been a while since a label catered to my tastes so consistently, with many of its acts both drawing from and capably updating the '90s indie/alternative rock that I grew up on. Despite being geographically scattered (with label chief Dan Goldin based in New York City but a cluster of bands in Boston), its roster has the stylistic bleed that was a '90s scene trademark. (Quick case study: many of Champaign-Urbana's class of 1993—Hum, Love Cup, Poster Children, Honcho Overload—shared a fondness for heavy guitars, if not members and/or pedal chains. Contrast that commendable smear with the niche-oriented scene I encountered there at the turn of the millenium.) I've rarely caught only one of their acts on a bill, since Pile, Fat History Month, Grass Is Green, Speedy Ortiz, and Ovlov seem magnetically attracted to each other. And why not? They've all released excellent records that claw at each other for the highest placement on my year-end lists.
This narrative became unavoidable with Ovlov's Am; it's a family affair beyond the obvious distinction of the group's shared parentage. Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis contributes vocals to four tracks, three members of Grass Is Green add instrumentation, and Grass Is Green's Michael John Thomas III handles production duties. Yet Am is a different beast than Speedy Ortiz's Sports or Grass Is Green's Ronson, offering sludgy-yet-sweet blasts of amp-quaking grunge.
I often avoid using that genre tag, ever wary of what it wrought later in the decade. But Am's reference points steer clear of the radio-friendly unit-shifters that shall not be named (if you say Candlebox's name three times, they appear to a never-ending acoustic set in your living room), sticking with late '80s Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, and Nirvana. Steve Hartlett sounds like a dead-ringer for J. Mascis at times, making me wonder if he'll also look like a metal-shop instructor/wizard in twenty-five years. Not that I'm complaining; as much as I've enjoyed the Dinosaur Jr. reunion, Ovlov's "The Well" might very well do a superior job of channeling the energy of You're Living All Over Me. If there's a fight for the affectionate nickname of "Dinosaur Jr. Jr.," I'll side with Ovlov mucking it up with Living All Over Me/Bug sonics than Yuck's Green Mind/Where You Been evocations.
Am's feast of sludge doesn't supersede the songwriting or the melodies essential to repeated plays. Opener "Grapes" could succeed on its basement-show My Bloody Valentine riff alone, but its Hartlett/Dupuis duet is the highlight, offering sweetness and light where those elements . Dupuis's appearances on "The Well" and the aching, mid-tempo "Where's My Dini?" make an argument for her full-time employment in Ovlov, if not for, you know, Speedy Ortiz. The throttling "Nü Pünk" is a showcase for drummer Theo Hartlett, but his brother's melancholic vocal line cuts through the fury. While Steve Hartlett wisely avoids challenging Mascis to a soloing duel, stretching out with noise-wrangling outros on "Blue Baby" and "The Great Alligator" at the record's close proves cathartic. The only head-scratcher is "There's My Dini," which switches from half-spoken, half-ranting verses reminiscent of King Missle to a more familiar, melodic chorus. Nothing against the authors of "Jesus Was Way Cool," but for Ovlov, it's a mood shift away from their sweet spot.
It'll be a challenge to rank Ovlov's Am against Fat History Month's Bad History Month, Two Inch Astronaut's Bad Brother, and Speedy Ortiz's upcoming Major Arcana when December rolls around, but one I'm all too happy to face. Pausing the gravitational pull towards discussing their respective '90s touchstones for a merciful minute, my rankings will ultimately come less from which scuffed CDs they cite and more from their respective songwriting styles. Ovlov's forceful, tuneful melancholy stakes equal claim to both my car stereo and my headphones, so their peers, past and present, on Exploding in Sound Records need to watch out.