My two-volume Oxford dictionary on historical principles informs me that an ‘overlord’ is not just any feudal ruler but a guy pretty far up on the Middle Ages food chain. The uber lord, if you will. But then the online urban dictionary claims its just a bit of modern slang for “one who excels greatly over their peers in any particular task.” I think either one could work for Overlord, the highly literate poprock band from Brooklyn, NY. Their new single is “Up for Anything” and it’s brilliant. A straight up, one minute and 18 seconds of manicured pop songcraft, no filler. But to really appreciate what Overlord has to offer, we’ve got to go back – way back – to the 1990s and track the evolution of a slightly noisy, fuzzed out garage outfit to the finely crafted poprock connoisseurs they’ve become.
The band’s discography is like a picture slowly coming into focus. The first albums and EPs are somewhat discordant, vibing a kind of DIY punk ‘tude. But everything becomes more clear and pristine over time. The turning point is 2001’s The Wonderful World of Chemistry. Both “Populist Anthem,” with its blurry take on late 1960s California pop, and “Meet the Situation Artist,” featuring nice strummy electric guitar and washed out vocals, up the melodic anti for the group. But it is the brilliant “The 70th Love Song (Class of 1993 Reunion Theme)” that gestures toward the wit and intelligence to come on future releases. Beyond the stylized vocal effects, the song features some killer lyrics. It takes a certain perspective on things to contrast “some boys’ lips are made for smiles” with “some boys’ lips are made for sutures.” Populist AnthemThe 70th Love Song (Class of 1993 Reunion Theme)
These early tendencies are much in evidence on 2006’s Ticker Symbols. The deadpan drollery is there on “The Very Next Person to the Hold My Hand Can Have Me” and “When You Were Crazy” but things also get more melodically serious on the “We’ll Never Get Away” with its Brydsian and Beatles’ Revolver era élan. Meanwhile “The Song that Saved the World” sounds like a milder XTC take on the pretensions of ‘let’s give the planet a big hug’ musicians. Five years later In Soviet Russia, My Heart Breaks For You serves up another great batch of songs, particularly “Oh, My Mechanical Heart!” “Keep it from the Baby,” “Nothing is Wrong.” There is something very Hollies or even late 1960s Moody Blues in the broad sonic palette here, especially the vocals. The band’s mastery of form is even more obvious four years later on their note-perfect homage/send up of the mopey one on “I Want to Die with You Morrissey.”The Very Next Person to Hold My Hand Can Have MeWe’ll Never Get AwayThe Song That Saved the World
All this leads us to 2016’s The Well Tempered Overlord, the band’s undeniable masterpiece. The wit is cutting, the umbrage exquisite. This is deeply intelligent and catchy music, intellectually riffing on indie culture and beyond. Think of all those smart and clever bands – The Smiths, Magnetic Fields, They Might Be Giants, XTC – and this record adds a new member to the club. There really isn’t a weak cut on the album but I’m specifically loving the hooks on “You’re Gonna Love This One” or the great lead guitar and vocals on “It’s a Travesty,” the alternating tempo of “Incredibly Human” and the rollicking rush of “Posthumous Honors,” with its great line about ‘my whole life was a bad idea.’ And for those who came only for the sardonic wit you’ve still got “Give Up Your Dreams” and “My Absence Will Go Unnoticed.”