by Tim Crisp (@betteryetpod)
I remember where I was the first time I heard Ovlov. It was late at night in a Bandcamp hole, I found a record called Am and the moment the feedback and surge of guitars on “Grapes” hit I grabbed my Grado headphones, plugged them in, and turned the sound up as loud as I could, sitting and doing nothing else but listening. I often come back to Ovlov and Stove records with a similar ritual of intent. Steve Hartlett’s music has always rewarded careful listening. At a time when it feels like only doing one thing at a time is somehow insufficient, you cherish the bands that move you to the extent where you’re compelled to drop everything else. Am, like it was for many others, was my first exposure to Ovlov, but the newly compiled Greatest Hits Vol. II brings together their pre-Am output, remastered and brimming with the excitement and promise of things to come.
The compilation works its way through chronologically, starting with 2009’s Crazy Motorcycle Jump EP, followed by What’s So Great About The City? and Not The Same Without You. Collections of early materials such as this function not only as an organizational tool but also as a way of providing insight into the beginnings of a band, a look into their development. This can run the mill from amateurish attempts to half-baked thoughts—I have plenty of similar collections that really only serve the completist urge in my record collecting—but what’s striking about Greatest Hits Vol. II is how well-developed Ovlov is from the onset. “Strand of Steve-O” hits with the same ferocity as that opening swell of “Grapes” which had left such an impression. This isn’t the band before they became the band, it’s an immediate statement.
If there’s a defining attribute to Ovlov it’s Steve’s guitar tone which towers over these recordings. Hearing it locked in so immediately is exciting, but what’s more striking is the presence of the entire package, also well in place. Songs like “Ahhehuhah” and “What Comes Next” showcase the band’s ability to combine the drive of SST-era Dinosaur Jr. with Hartlett’s unique sense for melodic vocal lines. He seems to have an innate understanding of how he can utilize his own distinctive voice. His inflections and particular annunciations show a real impressive ability to work with the existing parts. The near shout of the “Ahhehuhah” chorus and ear candy stretches of the long vowels on “What Comes Next” are completely their own, always on point. The same can be said too of Ovlov’s more deliberate tracks. There’s a moving gentleness that comes through on a track like “Mustachio”—an eeriness that carries as the guitars lie in wait, ready to explode. The guitar solos, of course, are always a journey. Hartlett’s extended solos are a textbook expression of Neil Young’s notion that “it’s not the note, it’s how you play it.” Never concerned with being technically precise or flashy, Hartlett’s guitar is always very in the moment. Expressive bursts with a clearly defined intent.
There’s something pure about this band. Their presentation has never felt concerned with pretension or posturing a brand of cool. In contrast to most of the 90’s slacker revivalists or the aural focus of current shoegazers, Ovlov has always carried a decisive lightness. There’s a tangible innocence in these songs, not out of blissful ignorance or any sort of nostalgia for being young, but an insistence to see the world through simpler eyes. It’s what makes the exuberance of “Strand Of Steve-O” feel like more than a good pop song, it’s what makes the observations in contemplative moments more acute. “Not ‘til now, did I think to say you’re the best thing today” he says on “The City.” It’s a very real bit of conversation, inside of a song about the feeling of being overwhelmed in a large place. The big, big world. Being on the end of not knowing what to say to make it better, what Steve says in this instance is something honest and pure. It’s a lovely moment from a band that always feels grounding.