Favorite Track: "Alien Boy" Least Favorite Track: "Joke's on You"
In the musical landscape of 2020, getting your name to stand out as an artist is a tall order. When it comes to promotion, some musicians lack ability. It doesn’t matter how good your music is if it never gets heard. Santa Cruz, California native Oliver Tree, has no issues with getting people to pay attention. His wacky and gimmicky public persona makes it almost impossible to at least wonder what his music sounds like. I believe that behind the bowl cut and funky sunglasses lies a genuinely gifted musician, and Tree proves this on his new debut studio album: Ugly is Beautiful.
More than anything, Ugly is Beautiful is a great testament to Tree’s musical versatility. His performances and production all over this project are more often than not rock influenced, yet they cover ground from hip hop to electronica. Sometimes, like on “Bury Me Alive”, he sounds like a young Zack De La Rocha but equally as often on this LP his sound could draw comparisons to someone like Neon Trees. He covers a lot of ground, and it’s part of what makes this album so much fun; much like his social media antics you never really know what you’re going to get.
This album has been long anticipated to say the least and pushed back for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately most of which were out of Oliver Tree’s control. It was first delayed by his label (Atlantic) multiple times, before suffering another push back due to COVID-19, and then again due to timing because of racial injustice protests. Although many of the songs we get on this LP have been previously released as time fillers, the overall product still lives up to my expectations. The album opens with “Me, Myself & I”, a bombastic rock cut that discusses themes of seclusion and not fitting in. It sounds like an intro with a driving drum beat that seems to roll down the curtains and introduce our character of study: an outcast. Following this is a personal favorite for me: “1993 (feat. Little Ricky ZR3)”. Besides this track’s hypnotic electronic bassline and lyrical themes of proving your doubters wrong, it also possesses the album's lone feature. There have been all kinds of theories circling the internet in regards to who Little Ricky ZR3 is, as he has no publicly released music and Tree has mentioned him multiple times in countless interviews. The small amount of imagery that we have seen in regards to Little Ricky does make him seem like a very similar character to Oliver and thus fans have drawn the assumption that Little Ricky ZR3 is just a moniker developed by Tree. Personally, I find this theory very convincing especially considering how vocal Tree has been regarding his problems with his label, and plans to retire following this album. If I had to guess, he is going to simply start making music under the name Little Ricky ZR3 rather than move onto film production which is what he has stated he is going to do. However, if Oliver Tree has taught us anything about his character it’s that this man is truly unpredictable, so only time will tell.
The strongest stretch of this LP comes between track #3-#6. “Let me Down” is a fun rock cut with some conservative hip hop production and spastic guitars, a mix that works surprisingly in Tree’s favor. “Miracle Man” is one of the more poppy tracks on the project. There seems to be some clear Foster The People worship here. This track’s hook is absolutely infectious, and the way Tree contrasts the distorted electric guitars with the soft acoustic breakdowns on the end of each verse is near perfect. Oliver Tree goes full hip hop on “Bury Me Alive”. The beat sounds like something the Beastie Boys would have absolutely murdered on Licensed To III. The track shows that Oliver Tree is a surprisingly capable rapper. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I heard him spit; “I'm literal, miss me by a four second interval, catch me by surprise, screaming situation critical”. Assuming his Little Ricky character is going to be a rapper, this track gives me faith that his output under that name will remain as strong as this album. Lastly, even though Atlantic has truly shoved this track down the throats of the public “Alien Boy” still sounds great in the context of this LP, and remains a serious highlight.
Despite this immaculate stretch of tracks Ugly is Beautiful does slow down a bit at this point, proving itself as a bit top heavy. I'm not exactly sure what sort of cohesion Oliver was going for with the tracks “Jerk” and “Hurt” coming back to back, but I don’t care much for his voice under the darker instrumental palettes that he explores here. The following track “Introspective” has a sound that lives up to its name, with some softer electric chords, and a staccato vocal delivery that's oddly reminiscent of Blink-182’s “All the Small Things”. The track is fine, but I don’t think it goes far enough to where I’d revisit it. “I'm Gone” is a fun and hectic rock closer that sounds like a sequel to the album's intro. I think the symbolism is meant as a double entendre explaining Oliver being gone from a toxic relationship as well as leaving this chapter of his music career behind.
Ugly is Beautiful doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I don’t think it needs to. Oliver’s wacky persona might not be permanent and it might lack staying power, but for now it doesn’t seem to be taking much away from the actual quality of his music. Ugly is Beautiful is a fun batch of tracks, much like it’s creator if you take it too seriously it loses some of its appeal; however with the right outlook it’s silliness is charming enough to win me over.