Ox – Sunday Morning Fever
There’s a cinematic quality to Dust Bowl Revival, the debut album from Ox, so it’s no surprise that singer-guitarist Mark Browning was obsessed with movies during the recording process. Given the album’s title, one might guess that the sandy-haired 34-year-old couldn’t get enough of John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath. His hauntingly hushed songs certainly speak of desperation and hard times; Tom Joad would have no trouble relating to lines such as, “I been everywhere, I seen a whole lot of trouble/When the night come down more than a man can bear.”
The big-screen inspiration for Dust Bowl Revival was indeed a classic, but it was a decidedly more modern one. Browning admits he has something of a fixation with the 1970s. Feeding his fascination while he was working on the record was Boogie Nights, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s coked-up ode to the sexual excesses of the Me Decade.
“The movie was on constantly while we were in the studio — basically we had it looped,” Browning says. “What happened is that parts of Boogie Nights started to come out on the record. It’s there not only in the approach that I took to recording, but also here and there in the lyrics of the songs.”
Not to worry, though — Dust Bowl Revival didn’t come out sounding like a garish, glittering, booties-and-platform-boots blast from the past. Though the album’s lyrics are spiked with references to Trans Ams, Camaros, 8-tracks, skateboards and banana-seat bicycles, Browning isn’t interested in kitsch. Such cultural artifacts instead serve as scene-setting props for songs about riding shotgun in stolen cars, failed Hollywood dreams, hopelessly ruined relationships, and depressingly deserted small towns.
Musically, the album’s blend of creaking-floorboards country and sparse anti-folk suggests Browning would rather be dividing up the downers with Harvest-era Neil Young than sucking back tequila sunrises with KC & the Sunshine Band.
Browning is clearly in touch with his dark side, but that wasn’t always so. He spent a couple years criss-crossing North America on a Greyhound bus, releasing two singer-songwriter solo albums under his given name. In 2002, he abruptly decided he’d had enough of playing what he now dismisses as sensitive “folk-porno.”
“I was in the process of recording an album very much in the vein of what I’d done all my career,” he recounts. “Right when I was ready to mix it, it hit me that I hated what I was doing. I was like, ‘This whole mellow folk thing that I’ve got going on is shit.’ I literally got sick of myself — of being Mark Browning.
“I realized that I had to either trash it all and start again musically, or give up performing altogether and move on to doing something else with my life. So I became Ox and began to question the way that I wrote songs, from the chords I used on down. If something seemed like it should rhyme, I made sure it didn’t.”
He chose the name Ox not for its connotations with farming, but for more concrete reasons. “I wanted something really simple and short,” he explains. “I also like that the O and the X are also almost like a circle and a cross — symbols that transcend language barriers.”
Browning acknowledges he often sounds worn out and weary beyond his years on Dust Bowl Revival, which he originally released independently last year before it was picked up for wider distribution this summer by Canadian label Maximum Music. There’s a reason his sadness seems genuine on tracks such as the ghost-town quiet “Fat Old Sun”.
“Maybe what you’re hearing is an acceptance of the genre that I’m in,” he says. “I’m an indie artist on the road and living out of a backpack and guitar cases. When you choose that lifestyle, you accept you’ll never hit the Top 40. Instead you go from coast to coast playing clubs, and maybe theaters when you’re lucky enough to open for somebody.
“That has an effect on you. You realize that you’re not trying to be Britney Spears, but instead you’re trying to be Bonnie Prince Billy and that you’ll never make a lot of money. If that doesn’t come out in the music, you’re not being honest.”
And keeping the music honest is what’s most important to Browning on Dust Bowl Revival. Part of that was embracing his mistakes on the record; it doesn’t matter to him that you can hear his voice cracking on the fragile “Stolen Car”. Given that he used to be obsessed with the perfect take in his solo folkie days, it’s a new way of thinking.
For that, he gives the credit, strangely, to Boogie Nights. “I like not just what Boogie Nights is about, but also the way it was done,” he says. “One of the things that I love about the film is that there are so many inaccuracies and screw-ups in it that are obviously left in on purpose.
“That movie was a template for me. I left the mistakes in on Dust Bowl Revival — because I realized they are part of the whole process. Normally people get the finished product that’s all polished and ready for public consumption. I like the idea of giving them something that’s not glossed over.”