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New Music: Oliver Houston Embrace Classic Midwestern Emo on Whatever Works

“Sometimes it seems my life has already peaked / And now it’s 23 / Burdened by the wait of routine,” Grand Rapids, Michigan trio Oliver Houston belt out on “Tom Quad,” a noisy blast of nostalgia inspired by a study abroad trip to Oxford. The song anchors the first half of the band’s new album Whatever Works, their debut full-length. But in the storied tradition of emo bands of the upper Midwest, Oliver Houston—Kyle Luck (guitar, vocals), Matthew Mancilla-McCue (bass, vocals), and Garret Cabello (drums)—tackle their busy arrangements with a cozy, DIY aesthetic. Recorded with Rick Johnson at Cold War Studios in Grand Rapids, Whatever Works balances ragged vocals and math-rock rhythms with twinkly guitars and earnest words.

“With Whatever Works we were really trying to bridge the gap between early 90’s, Midwestern classics like Grown Ups & Cap’n Jazz [with] the pop sensibility of more current, mainstream acts,” writes Oliver Houston’s Kyle Luck over email. While much of the album tends toward the model of foundational bands like Cap’n Jazz or Braid, songs like “Concessions” and “Tough Luck” could fit alongside current emo revival stars like the Hotelier or Modern Baseball.

If Oliver Houston had a mission statement, it might sound a bit like “Tough Luck,” a breezy song about working with what’s in front of you now. Luck is the band’s lyricist, and his words run effortlessly from the quirky and prosaic (“Long night, lounging in some long johns / Last bite of your bagel, now it’s all gone”) to the humbly existential: “Either way, I’m alive / (At least for most of the time)”. That’s intentional, he writes: “This album’s title has everything to do [with] defending philosophical pragmatism.”

Whatever Works is out today digitally and on vinyl, via Bandcamp. Stream it below.