Ninja Pants newcomer Stephen Magee makes his long-awaited review debut (hey, that rhymes) on Ken Oak Band’s Vienna to Venice.

Ken Oak Band, Vienna to Venice (2006), Indie Rock, Cello Rock Records

Ever since I was a young lad, I’ve had a kind of love of bad art. I don’t mean Thomas Kinkaid bad. No, I’m talking more of the kind of bad characterized by Hulk Hogan and the Wrestling Boot Band’s “Hulk Rules.” I remember fondly the day one of my closest friends excitedly brought home several dozen copies of the Hulk album from the dollar store. He passed them out to his friends with no head for their safety or for the preservation of their sanity. I even remember leaving one album as part of a tip at a Chinese restaurant. There was a kind of golden curiosity in wondering how that album might have forever changed the life of our waitress. Since then, Hulk Hogan the wrestler and celebrity personality will always be superseded in my mind by Hulk Hogan the musician.

And so, my love of bad art grew and flourished from this one find and since then my library of music and film has grown to include many more treasures scraped from the bottom of the creative barrel. Among the best are the late and quite prolific Wesley Willis and an album of pop music including songs like Livin’ La Vida Loca done up with a Christian themed lyrical alteration. The best part about cultivating such a taste for the best of the worst is that I’m rarely disappointed by something new I hear. Generally enough of it falls on the good or bad side of the line that I find some sort of enjoyment in listening to it. This brings me to Vienna to Venice from Ken Oak Band.

This album has failed in the most fundamental way a piece of art can. It has left me with no feeling whatsoever except a sort of uninterested emptiness. It was surprising to me, since I’d had the album described to me as Cello Rock and this had a sort of promising ring to it as I have a real fondness for the sound of orchestral strings, that I should dislike it so strongly. Cello Rock doesn’t really define Ken Oak’s sound though. The cello sort of falls into the background and plays second to the singing, which drones on in a manner about as compelling as a very quiet air raid siren. It’s not that Ken can’t sing. It’s more like his voice carries no weight, and it doesn’t help that the lyrics feel airy and trite.

I know bad, and Ken Oak is not bad. I don’t presume to be an expert on great art, but certainly for me at least Ken Oak is not great. Vienna to Venice falls in a sort of purgatory which just depresses me when I hear it. One line from “Trampoline” off the album expresses the album’s impact best for me: “doesn’t phase me at all.” There is potential here, as Ken on Cello and vocals and Ed on guitar obviously have talent, but I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love with their sound until they move away from what I can only describe as a masculine and whiney Aimee Mann.

stephen magee