Ben Gunstone
The Lost Revue

Ox 'Dustbowl Ballads'
It's difficult to identify with a record that talks of the polar opposite of what you're currently experiencing. And so it is that I find myself listening to Canadian collective Ox in the middle of a heatwave, observing that "it's near October and you've got grey comin' in your hair," about as autumnal a lyric as you can get. Mind you, as the record progresses it gives the impression of oppressive heat and drought, its title appropriate in the end.
Ox are an eight strong Vancouver collective fronted by vocalist Mark Browning, although you rarely experience the full force of their instrumental capabilities. Often the music finds Browing alone with his guitar, musing, but the octet gives them versatility. They've been such a hit in their native land that previous album Dust Bowl Revival pipped Radiohead as the most popular album on Canadian College Radio.
Dust Bowl Ballads is a lonely record, and not one to uplift the soul in all honesty. Browning's voice lends itself to an introspective melancholy, now and then rising above the parapet as the emotion grows. And there is plenty of emotion to savour in a refreshingly untreated sound, even if it sometimes sounds mannered.
Most immediately successful are two of the upbeat bonus tracks. Truck Driving Country Music Promoter is just what it sounds like, a self deprecating take on country music with amusing lyrics, stating he's "truck drivin', jukebox playin', coffee drinkin', pinball shootin', waitress pinchin' ".
Unfortunately this song exhibits the album's principal annoyance, a fondness for sudden distortion clips of no more than half a second that, apart from making you jump on headphones, can potentially ruin the acoustic nature of the main material. That aside, qb notes "everybody wants to be the quarterback" over an uneven meter, talking about how "he gets the girl and the money". Finally, 1913 looks forward to Christmas and Browning allows his voice to crack in mid-note, emoting more.
The cover version of Brand New Key is unfortunate, the most obvious dud on the record, with an aimless vocal melody. Far better is the searching Spinning Wheels, where Browning's voice takes on a Springsteen quality, as he also does on the quaintly versed Love Henry. Meanwhile Rodeoman asks pertinently, "what's the point of making plans", with a beautifully subtle brush on the snare.
If you have a penchant for alt-country, there'll be much to involve you here. For those after the perfect sunshine pop record, however, I'd advise caution on when you listen to this.

Ox 'Dustbowl Ballads'
No, not a new Woodie Guthrie album. Ox, a vehicle for Canadian singer-songwriter Mark Browning, is clearly a Woodie fan who is not aversed to a bit of Springsteen, Ryan Adams, Neil Young and maybe Willy Mason too. The sound is chunky, the voice earthy, the guitars robust, the songs lean and mean. It sounds self-consciously informal and a bit random but his heart's in the right place. And his stripped down 'Love Henry' makes you forgive most things.

8/10 Channel 4 Teletext (UK)

Ox 'Dustbowl Ballads'
Ox's debut was the first independent release to hit no.1 in the college radio chart of their Canadian homeland; this follow-up sees singer-songwriter Mark Browning gaining confidence as his elegant, breaking voice weaves through songs that unashamedly take the alt out of alt-country. Picked acoustic guitars and references to American landscapes might not shock Neil Young fans, but this live recording - replete with mumbled false starts - makes for an intimate and emotional record, particularly on the string-drenched Weaving. One to watch.

3/5 The London Line

Ox 'Dustbowl Ballads'
Not to be confused with Ox, the Brighton based outfit featuring James Oxborrow who released Blood and had several voices talking about them as the new Travis. No, rather this is a Canadian collective headed by Mark Browning (with collaborators including Radiogram's Ken Beattie and Trish Klein of the Tanyas) and the album's their follow up to Dustbowl Revival.
As you might surmise from the titles, Browning's into the folk-country tradition of Guthrie, he sings as 'refelction of middle-America where sun, sky and grain converge, where time and highway collide to leave a distinct flavour of dust in the mouth'. So narrative driven moody songs of lives lived in the face of hard times, hard hearts and hard country.
The opening folksy Harvester conjures up leafy images of suns setting over lonely fields and a lonelier widowed farmer, as if Nick Drake had somehow come to live in the mid-West, though elsewhere a grwoly grumbling Iowa evokes 70s Neil Young and the twang in cheek Truck Driving Country Music Promoter sees Johnny Cash dating the sweetheart of the rodeo.
He breaks into a soft shoe brushed percussion shuffle with Going Away where surely a pinch of gospel roots shares the front porch hooch and kazoo. Sugar Cane offers romantic pledges to a swampy slap rhythm, the weathered Rodeoman rides a country horse and QB sounds like a throwing out time rowdy singalong.
But it's the spare, reflective moments that provide the highs. The simple folk flavour and heartaching sadness of Love Henry, a Springsteenish memory of hometwon far away in the strummed acoustic Weaving, and harking to the protest ballads of inspiration, the closing 1913 where the ghost of Guthrie hovers over the devastating tragedy of a Michigan miners Christmas celebration shattered and three young girls left dead by the 'copper boss thugs'.
Browning stumbles with a rework of Melanie's sprightly Brand New Key as a cranky blues lurch that might have been fun to record but stands out like a sore thumb on the disc, but it's the only flaw in an album that is most definitely the dogs bollocks.
Ox 'Dustbowl Ballads'
Ox is the brainchild of Canadian singer-songwriter Mark Browning and draws heavily on country-folk traditions; the folk element shines through in the often narrative-based lyrics, while the country influence is emphasised by the violin and slide guitar, and no doubt the contribution of collaborators such as Trish Klein (Be Good Tanyas).'Dustbowl Ballads' is the darker, moodier counterpart to Ox's debut album, 'Dustbowl Revival', and plays tribute to Woody Guthrie's debut of the same name.
In trying to describe Ox's sound, Browning's own words are perhaps the most revealing; he refers to their music as 'a reflection of middle-America, when sun, sky and grain converge where time and highway collide to leave a distinct flavour of dust in your mouth'. And the music on 'Dustbowl Ballads' does conjure up this kind of imagery - its sound is sparse and skeletal, but what is present is effective and poignant; the beautiful finger-picked acoustic guitar of the album's opening track, 'Harvester', is enough to send shivers down your spine, as does the sound of Browning's heartfelt country whine.
Tracks like 'Harvester' and 'Iowa' have fantastic melodies, and 'Iowa' in particular isn't dissimilar to the 1970s folk-rock stylings of the band's fellow Canadian, Neil Young, both in the style of the song and Browning's emotive vocals. These stunning vocals can be heard in the tragic subject matter of 'Love Henry', a beautifully painful and heart-wrenching ballad. In tracks such as 'Rodeoman', 'Spinning Wheels' and 'Weaving', the band combine a delicate guitar sound with simple rhythms and twisted melodies, while the final track, '1913' emphasises Ox's folk background again by its sparse simplicity and Dylan-esque sound. An unexpected cover of Melanie Safka's 1971 US number one, 'Brand New Key', is the most distinct break in the dark, moody sound of the album, but although this is a more light- hearted song, Ox manage to make this track work brilliantly for them without it feeling out of place.
The snippets of conversation left between many of the tracks and the stop and start beginnings to some of the songs make this album feel very intimate, making it seem incredibly personal despite the vastness of middle-America that 'Dustbowl Ballads' draws so much of its influence from. If you're a fan of folk-rock traditions, such as those from Bob Dylan or Neil Young, or the country style of bands like Be Good Tanyas, it's almost impossible not to fall in love with the authentic, natural sounding, folk feel of this album.


Ox 'Dustbowl Ballads'
Ox's debut, 'Dustbowl Revival', was a remarkable opener for singer- songwriter Mark Browning, hitting number one on the US college chart. That was no undeserved success, as the album was built around a core of real quality songwriting, with a country overlay. Plus, this hard working band are even better live. Here, in a move almost determined to provoke comment, Ox produces an album with the same name as a classic Woody Guthrie album. That takes some gumption, but largely it is easy to forgive the band its ambition.
When Ox are good, as on the opening tracks, 'Harvester' and 'Iowa', the sound of America's midwest is laid out in the space between the beautiful and sparse guitar strumming. Culled from 'Dustbowl Revival', and the 12 tracks hidden on its original format, and supplemented by a handful of extra tracks, Ballads is the kind of CD you'd be genuinely be better off for hearing.


Ox 'Dustbowl Ballads'
If you close your eyes and listen to the opening two tracks, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are listening to some kind of Neil Young tribute band covering obscure, previously unheard songs by the maestro. Whether this is a compliment or a put down is, of course, open to discussion. Further investigation, however, reveals that other influences are at play here too, and that a fair measure of individuality and character has been retained to take this well beyond any possible accusations of plagiarism.
'Love Henry' and 'Weaving' are both very reminiscent of Ron Sexsmith, and the sardonic 'Truck Drivin Country Music Promoter' sounds like Hank Wangford meets Jim White, with some tongue in cheek vocals and a great big sound with lots of echo in evidence. 'Sugar Cane' and 'Going Away' are simply great country songs, full stop, the latter having that loose, lazy stoned Grateful Dead feel. 'Spinning Wheels' is a marvellously evocative lonesome song with Mark Browning's guitar/vocal supported only by some brief dashes of colour, firstly from pedal steel, then dobro.
The whole thing has been recorded live, complete with false starts, sounds from the control room, etc, and is for the most part convincing. The only negative aspects are a pointless, aimless version of Melanie's 'Brand New Key' and a feeling that the hippy, shambolic approach which works most of the time, get just a little self-indulgent and irritating at times.