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Never Going Back to OK
Artist: The Afters
INO Records / Columbia
Time: 12 tracks / 41:56
After releasing a brief debut project as Blisse, and re-introducing themselves with a new CD (I Wish we All Could Win) and a new name, The Afters have now firmly established themselves with their strongest and most well-defined effort so far – Never Going Back to OK. With their new release, The Afters show themselves to be a formidable rock band with strong pop leanings, displaying good solid song writing backed up by compelling vocals, strong musicianship, thoughtful lyrics and classic-rock style production. Already having garnered the attention of the MTV audience when “Beautiful Love” was used on the show “8th and Ocean,” The Afters are well-poised to follow in the footsteps of bands like Switchfoot and Sixpence None the Richer: further crossover success for this band seems inevitable with the release of the broadly appealing Never Going Back to OK.
Right from track one, “The Secret Parade,” it becomes obvious that The Afters are giving us more than we’d bargained for, as this short, Beatle-esque ‘prelude’ tips its hat to the psychedelic sixties and lets us know that this isn’t necessarily going to be the album we’d expected. The Afters haven’t changed their sound, but have ‘come into their own’ as rock artists and no longer sound as if they’re trying to prove themselves. There’s a maturity to this project that serves the band well, as evidenced by the title song, which comes close on the heels of “The Secret Parade,” and is a strong rocker in the Switchfoot tradition. In “Never Going Back to OK,” when lead singer and guitarist Josh Havens sings “We’re never going back to OK, / We’re never going back to easy…” you can believe it – this is a band that sounds more aggressive, more ready for the market place, than ever before. Comparisons can, and no-doubt will be made to Switchfoot, there are other strong influences throughout the album. Not only does the project open with strong Beatle influence, but the closing track, “One Moment Away,” also has a PFR / Beatles vibe about it, while the fourth track, “Tonight,” has an opening melodic phrase that recalls “Cry, Baby, Cry,” from The Beatles’ White Album. “MySpace Girl,” (a pop/rock tour-de-force, telling the true story of vocalist/guitarist/bass-player Brad Wigg’s pursuit of his wife-to-be) sounds like a good candidate for The Elms, another band from the Christian market that’s enjoying crossover success. These influences all point to a classic rock sensibility and never cross the line into imitation; no – The Afters have established a real sound of their own, in no small part due to their distinctive vocals. Aided by Matt Fuqua (who also contributes guitar) and Wigg, Josh Havens’ vocals are listener-friendly, emotional and expressive whether rocking out or delivering a ballad, as in “Summer Again,” where he also displays an excellent falsetto range.
Never Going Back to OK has an excellent mix of rock-edged pop songs and powerful, tasteful ballads. There are plenty of highlight moments: the striking bridge on “MySpace Girl,” the ‘Beatle harmony’ and driving rhythm guitar on “One Moment Away,” the welcome piano sound on several tracks (played by Dan Muckala), the strings on “Keeping Me Alive,” played by David Davidson, David Angell and John Catchings … You want hooks? You’ve got ‘em. Want melody? You’ve got that, too. There’s nothing on this album with the sweeping beauty of “Wait,” from the band’s previous release, but the ballads have real weight and presence – they’re not of the ‘instant-ballad’ variety – and the lyrics are poetic and often quite beautiful, as in “Beautiful Words,” where we hear, ‘We are words, On pages that we’ve left unturned, An ending no one’s ever heard. We are a story slowly unfolding… Beautiful words.’ Those looking for explicit spiritual content might be disappointed that there are no strong ‘statements of faith’ on this project, although ‘Forty-Two’ comes close: this is an album of positive declarations (the title track), stories about life and love, and good old rock and roll.
Dan Muckala has done an excellent job producing this project with just enough technique and studio magic to make the music sound big and interesting, while allowing us to still hear what the band actually sounds like. The Afters could have simply become the group to fill the gap left by PFR, but they’re not content to just be place-fillers: they’re ready to take off, and Never Going Back to OK just might be the vehicle that puts them over.
To quote from Switchfoot’s “More Than Fine,” The Afters’ Never Going Back to OK is ‘more than just OK.’
By Bert Saraco