CD Review – Wild Okra “The First Year”
While Wild Okra‘s The First Year (Slow Divide Records, 2013) documents a year spent battling depression, fear, and exhaustion, it is, at its core, a record about love. The band is Jared Himstedt (American Culture eXperiments, American Sasquatch, Aloha Fridays, and many more), whose infant daughter endured several brain operations. This album is a personal, introspective look into Himstedt’s and his family’s struggle to find hope in uncertainty. It’s an outpouring of self-doubt, insecurity, disappointment, apology, joy, and all the emotions in between. It acknowledges and confronts the limitations of simple optimism. It isn’t easy listening.
Himstedt is a dear friend of mine. And I, too, am a recent father, so I feel close to many of the album’s themes. But anyone who’s ever had a family, a child, or any loving relationship will identify with Himstedt’s exploration of the complexities of love and commitment. The music, driven by strong melodies, beautiful harmonies, and warm acoustic tones, draws us in.
Steeped in folk, The First Year embraces Southern Gothic Americana delivered by a darkly deadpan, Cohenesque baritone. Himstedt leans on this tradition, finding some consolation in the pastoral (“Circles,” “We Will Try”) and addressing grief from within a biblical framework (“A Lament”). The gravity of mortality is always at hand. Lines are punctuated with swells of vocals, strings, and horns as phrases move suddenly from quiet corners to the foreground before dropping back. And like those stylistic forbearers Himstedt removes, often, the mask of metaphor:
We will die and we might lose
but in this we must not despair
you are so strong, came to save us
and we’re cutting your head open again
(from “Grow Right”)
Though Himstedt considers the possibility that prayer may not be enough (“Last Flight,” “We Will Try”), there are occasional departures from minor chords. A welcomed bright moment on the album is the harmonic guitar solo at the end of “The Path,” whose tone holds true to Himstedt’s fondness for 80s surf rock. (In fact, subtle shades of surf guitars haunt many of these songs.) The album, despite its melancholia, is underscored by a feeling of at least wanting to hope, as “A Lament” demonstrates, beginning delicately with an acoustic guitar and a soft voice followed by timid tremelo picking, strings, and a xylophone. We feel the desperation, that at any second all could unravel. But suddenly the song explodes into defiance, strengthened by the heartbeat of the kick drum and a chorus of resolute voices.
“12 Months” is the song that speaks for the album. Himstedt’s vocals move from hushed gratitude and admiration for his wife’s resolve to loud declarations of isolation and terror.
When they told us for the first time
it wouldn’t be alright
when you said strong and committed
you’d be willing to die
separated day after day
and you told me you thought you’d go crazy
and I was at home
I wrote about circles and being too tired to fight
about trying to find hope not knowing
if she would fly
then the night the sirens were screaming
and I thought that she would stop breathing
there in my arms
twelve months, four seasons, three lives
In the last line, a calm arrives after months of panic. The song, like the album as a whole, is heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful. Equipped with an unshakable love for his family, Himstedt refuses to give in to despair.