After launching a successful Kickstarter campaign with a dynamite video to raise the funds for her second full length project, song writing pop/folk/punk rocker Bess Rogers is out with the results. Out of the Ocean is in a real sense a concept album. Rogers explains that her inspiration came from Your Inner Fish, a book by paleontologist Neil Shubin, which takes a compelling look at human evolution. Oliver Sacks describes the book as “an intelligent, exhilarating, and compelling scientific adventure story, one which will change forever how you understand what it means to be human.” Rogers notes that the “book is about our evolution from life as far back as pre-historic fish and microbes and how that has affected our bodies and our lives now.” The book, she says, obsessed her: “I started to look at everything we do in life as a product of evolution, and many of the songs on this record were inspired by that idea.”
While it is certainly worthwhile to know about Rogers’ inspiration, it does tend to channel response to the album. This can be a good thing, but it can also create something of a problem. In my own case, the more I listened to the songs, the more evolution inspired content I discovered. The more I discovered, the more I looked for. I began to lose sight of the music and over intellectualize, ending up with a first draft critique of her remark about “many” of the songs being inspired by the idea that went like this:
“Many” may be something of an understatement. My own sense is that not only every one of the eleven songs on the album has been inspired by her obsession but that even their order on the record reflects an evolutionary theme. In a sense what Rogers has done is to create a metaphoric analogy between human physical evolution and the evolution of emotional relationships. As humanity evolved physically, individuals evolve emotionally in a kind of variation of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. Just a few examples: The disc opens with a little introduction of less than a minute called “One Step Free,” which gets the speaker out of the depths of the ocean and leads into “Standing Tall” where “a little bit of love” keeps her dry, keeps her alive, and fostering evolutionary growth. “Weak Link” deals with a kind of smothering enabling love that weakens its object and prevents it from becoming part of the evolutionary chain.
You get the idea. This kind of academic gibberish, even if true, which is debatable at best, is little more than pompous posturing. The song lyrics are available on Bess Roger’s website. Readers are welcome to check them out and decide what they all mean for themselves without third party mediation. Besides, when you come right down to it, there are some really fine songs on this album, whether they are related to the evolutionary theme, or whether they’re not, they still make for some mighty fine listening.
“In the Waves” is a kind of other worldly mermaid song that seems to offer an escape from the darkness and pain of the earthly world. “Math and Science” looks at the physical underpinnings of emotions like love, and happily asserts that whatever the reasons, love is a lot of fun: even if it’s “all just math and science/I will offer my compliance.” “I’ll Be Gone” rocks with the passion of love gone bad. The album ends with two acoustic jewels—a softly beautiful “Second Chance” and “Brick by Brick” which begins softly and then builds to an anthemic crescendo. A pop flavored “Anchor” with a theme that contrasts with the point of “Weak Link” is available for download on the singer’s website.
Rogers sings and plays a variety of different instruments on different tracks from ukulele and electric guitar to Moog synthesizer to melodia. Chris Kuffner, who produced the album and joined in the writing of “Math and Science,” also plays a number of different instruments, as does keyboard player Saul Simon-MacWilliams. Elliot Jacobson, and Adam Christgau are on percussion on various tracks. Other contributors include—Ingrid Michaelson and Allie Moss (vocals), Ian Axel (piano on “Anchor”) and Dave Eggar (cello).
Whether you want to indulge in fish out of water philosophizing or you prefer listening to some fine songs with tuneful wit, Out of the Ocean is an album that deserves your attention.