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Monday, July 30, 2012

New Jersey White Boy's Rap of the Week: Onboard Balloon

I saw this in a nightmare I once had.
This is an exciting day for me. With this band, I may actually out-hipster the guys at Pitchfork (I lied. No one can out-hipster Pitchfork). This article will at the very least out-hipster anything Steve has written (which is still pretty damn impressive). These guys are so underground, the world’s tallest telescope is jealous. This may be the first time we’ve actually had the chance to share an artist with the world for the first time. (I don’t count Mark’s discovery of Elle Odessa, because nobody counts Mark in anything).

Actually, to be fair, Onboard Balloon came to us. It’s a rather interesting story. Lee and Keegan Willis, the brothers who make up Onboard Balloon, had a friend named Sean (aka Gorilla Tuesday, which is an awesome nickname). Unfortunately, Sean passed away in a motorcycle accident while attending film school down in Austin, Texas. It was a sad event, and my heart goes out to the family and friends of Sean. However, a few weeks ago, OBB’s older brother Dustin (aka Worm, a slightly less awesome nickname) was trying to remember a song that was played at Gorilla Tuesday’s funeral. The brothers believed that one of the lyrics was “Frog on a log in a bog”, their search turned up our blog, and the rest is history. (The song is Authority Zero’s “Rattlin’ Bog”, which doesn’t have “Frog on a log in a bog” in the lyrics, if anyone was curious). This divine intervention has led to the first (Facebook) official friend of the blog, and hopefully a great jumping off point for a fantastic hip hop group.

As I previously stated, Onboard Balloon is made up of Lee and Keegan Willis, a pair of brothers from Peonia, Colorado and currently based out of Montrose, Colorado. Keegan is the producer, making all of the beats, while Lee takes care of the lyrics and vocals. They were originally founded all the way back in 2005, when Keegan started to send some beats over to Lee from audio school. Once Keegan got back home, they started working on their music more, until 2007 when they released their first album. They’ve actually released a bunch of albums so far, and are gearing up for their 6th release (which is called Songs to Escape the Desert By, for those curious). They make all their music in their shed-turned-recording studio, which looks pretty sweet, from both the inside and out.
This is my favorite picture of OBB. I have no idea why.

Now, given my admission of our friendship, it’s easy to see how I might be a bit biased in my analysis of their music. But there’s a reason why I actually followed through and wrote up an article about them. We’ve gotten a few people that have contacted the blog to try to get us to listen to their music. It’s a problem that every blog, music website, and magazine faces. Hell, I’ll occasionally get messages on Youtube from some dude about how I should totally check out this or that artist. And usually they suck, which is why they’re using Youtube and emails to blogs to get their name and music out there. Naturally, most people will ignore these emails. I, however, have an open mind and will at least give the band a shot. Worse case scenario, I lost 5 minutes out of my day. Best case scenario, I find some music that deserves a spot on my hard drive. Obviously, this is one group that deserves a spot in my music folder.

Lyrically, Lee seems to be channeling Beck whenever he puts pen to paper. On the surface, it sounds like random words that sound good and rhyme are slapped together, and when said aloud it sounds like he went to a psych ward and filled out a Mad Lib with what he heard. I mean, just look at part of the hook to “Buckshot Hockey” off their new album (available at all fine retailers of music, along with all not-so-fine retailers of music soon): “Calibrated catastrophe/buckshot hockey/snot ball basket case/drunken now talking”. But somewhere beneath all that obtuse language lays something deep. What that is, I have no idea; this is some heavy shit. But in the context of the song, it’s pretty powerful. Combined with that is his command of the English language. Jay-z famously read the dictionary to expand his vocabulary, but Lee sounds like he read a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and rhyming dictionary. His ability to bring in so many words and have such dense rhymes blows my mind.

Speaking of Beck, OBB draws a lot from country and folk music, which isn’t something you say a lot when talking about hip-hop (unless it’s Kanye West and it’s a great article on him). On top of the very folky tune “The Ballad of Ol’ Ray Selby”, Lee tends to write ballads. For instance, “Organite” is about a small town guy who wasn’t good enough to get out of that town and do something with his life. Instead he works at a factory for low wages and spends his nights scrounging for food, getting drunk, and being arrested. It’s a story that particularly resonates today, what with the economy and all. But it also tells the hardships of small town America even in a good economy just as well as any Bruce Springsteen song can
This is DJ Steady Bakin'. He was also in that nightmare.
But what I love is Lee’s aggressively-laidback delivery. He’s got that deep, somewhat monotone voice like Open Mike Eagle. He’s also like Open Mike Eagle lyrically, which I guess goes hand in hand with that kind of delivery. But he’s also subtly aggressive, like that substitute who demanded on lecturing like he was a teacher, but also fought in Vietnam, so the class didn’t argue. I mean, you can look at “Flik the Flak” where it’s supposed to be a fun song, and it still sounds like Lee is ready to jump through my earphones and make goddamn sure that I’m having a good time. Or the last 2 tracks from “Story Time”, which are a few random tracks they posted on their SoundCloud; “Jenny” and “Emmet” are very sad, emotional songs, and Lee conveys that. He also conveys that the fact that if you’re not crying, he’ll make you cry. With his fists. But it works well within the music and really draws you in. You may not always know what he’s saying, but you’re listening intently to not only figure it out, but also to not make Lee mad.

Of course, let’s not forget his brother Keegan. His instrumentals are entirely unique. While it’s hard to differentiate between 95% of producers in today’s hip-hop arena, I can tell an OBB beat from the first few seconds. He pulls in a wide variety of sounds – Native American wooden futes and drums; rough, dark reverb-filled guitars; ethereal, dark dream-y synths; rock drums; fun, playful chimes; heavy, hard rock or grunge influenced bass lines; alternative rock-fueled, tough-sounding acoustic guitars; hip-hop style drum machine kicks and snares and claps. Keegan pulls together so many different sounds and influences, but makes them work. There’s country, folk, grunge, synth-pop, hip-hop, hard rock, alt rock, and I’m sure a bunch of other stuff I’m too stupid to notice. But it works. It works so well. His gruff/ethereal sound melds with Lee’s voice, and creates a fantastic soundscape.

Now, if you’ve noticed, I’ve mainly stayed away from their earlier releases. Mostly because I haven’t had too much time to give them a super in-depth listen, but also because they just don’t jive with me. Bad Sleep, the album released prior to Mixtape, has moments of excellence and is the best of their other albums, but as a complete package, it’s a bit lacking. Same goes for their earlier albums – they have moments of brilliance and OBB’s signature style, but they still feel like 2 guys just messing around and trying to figure this whole rap thing out. But Mixtape is where they truly shine. Lee finally found a flow and delivery that works with his lyrics and the beats Keegan is putting out are complex and interesting, and I’m actually fairly excited about their next album. It’s like they had the square and triangle blocks, and knew the holes were made up of various straight edges and corners, but couldn’t figure out how to fit the blocks in until now. Lee’s solo album Talks It Wasted is also pretty damn good, but doesn’t count because it was without Keegan.
The Willis brothers always have the expression that they're confused by this
strange, "cam-era" technology
In the mean time, check out my favorite track by them (that I’ve heard so far). I’ve already talked a bit before. “Organite” is by far their best track, hands down. As I said, it’s the story of a beaten down man, struggling to get by however he can. It’s perfectly written from a lyrical standpoint, and perfectly delivered from a vocal standpoint. There’s anger and frustration in Lee’s voice, but also a depression and weariness to it. Musically, the beat is great – it features a sad synth with a bunch of reverb and a muffled drum beat. Then the bass line comes in and hits you with some emotion, followed quickly by the wailing violins. It all comes together into one moving and amazing piece.
It feels really cool to give publicity to a great band that has yet to be discovered by larger press outlets, even if I have absolutely no sway. So, I call upon you, all 6 people that will read this, to go out and share Onboard Balloon with the world. If there’s one hip-hop group that deserves your attention this year, Onboard Balloon is it. Well, also Death Grips. But OBB too. It’s music that doesn’t hit you until your 3rd or 4th listen through an album, but once it does, it’s stuck in there.

You can nab Mixtape for free, support them and buy their albums, and like them on Facebook. Oh, and if you’re a big fan of cool new music and mediocre writing, you should totally like Frogs on a Log on Facebook for regular updates about music you should totally be checking out.

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