Bands that escape being pigeonholed are often fun and interesting, but in the case of Brooklyn's Phonograph, perhaps only the latter is true. Okno is the band's sophomore release, coming two years after a self-titled debut that elicited serious praise from sober, roots-music magazines like Paste and American Songwriter.
Indeed, Phonograph has a knack for injecting dim New York influences (shards of Velvet Underground fuzz, blips of dance-club keyboards and electronica) into what is, at its essence, just more of the same Americana rock. Still, the male-female tradeoff of the groovy "Wellwisher" (thanks to the lovely voiced Grace Potter of Nocturnals infamy) and the liltingly melodic ballad "Are You Gonna" prove beyond a doubt that songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Matt Welsh can craft seriously attractive tunes. That said, at least half of Okno relies on artificial tension, like the banjo-vs.-distorted-bass landscape of "Mountain Tops," with its obscure, throwaway refrain.
Phonograph's musicianship is impeccable throughout, but the band might be better served by a commitment to either traditional songwriting or post-rock escapism. Regardless, it's an academic concern once you experience the jaunty "American Music," full of wide-open guitar leads and cymbal-smashing drums.
Welsh's lyrics are the usual melancholy stuff about heartbreak, his voice muffled in the mix and drenched in reverb to match the music's gloomy curtains. For fans of downbeat alt-country tinged with quirky instrumentation and noise à la Wilco, Phonograph's Okno is a worthy addition to the iTunes catalogue or CD rack.