Born in an age before Bandcamp, Facebook or even Myspace, The Options were once a bare bones garage rock trio that bloomed in the post-90s DIY environment of the time. With 2003's fittingly unsanctimonious Romance Is Bullshit, the band championed a casual edge that buzzed through lo-fi guitar riffs and inornate vocals. The lineup consisted of brothers Robert and Billy Egle in the rhythm section and vocals with Pat Quigley on guitar. They broke up in 2004.
In 2012, the brothers picked up where they left off to reform The Options as a two-piece project, and four years of simmering later, DOT was born.
Fans of the old material will find the new album to be a significant departure in both sound and scope; DOT is atmospheric, sincere, and ambitious. The Options have put greater emphasis on keyboard synths to concoct a series of expansive, self-indulgent set pieces, branching its garage rock sensibilities into the realm of neo-psychedelia. Free from predetermined live versions, the brothers explore every whim of these songs in their home studio without playing specific roles, resulting in a nice collaborative cohesion. Unfortunately, being a DIY affair, the production is rarely as lush and organic as the song structures hope to embody, though the arrangements do stand on the virtue of their own lofty visions.
There is an exception with opener "Appletree/Butterfly", which hits the mark in finding the right mix of sound and arrangement. It kicks the record off with a delightfully strange waltz that moves through various moods across its six minutes. Given that The Options are essentially still a rock act, it's notable just how little guitar is present on this track, which charges out of the gate with a piano clomp and many synthesized voices ranging from quirky accordion to looming vocal choir parts. The artifice of these sounds works especially well here to emphasize the overall otherworldliness, and it's effective when its more exuberant tones fade into the light, acoustic field of the song's third act. As a whole, the song brims with a smart, vibrant arrangement that uses dynamics to theatrical effect. It is quite possibly the best cut of the entire album.
The end of "Appletree/Butterfly" seamlessly fades into the beginning of "Do You Know Where Is the Library?", setting a precedent for many of the other segues on the record. This second track answers its title with "It's over here, it's over there / It happens to be everywhere", a sentiment that is carried further with skyward imagery in subsequent lines. When the lyrics come for a second round, the song's overlay of babbling organ sounds and undercurrent of synth swaths is joined by a build of excited drums and a more energetic vocal performance. Here, The Options are ensnared by this seemingly profound concept, though the language is vague enough that it could be interpreted a myriad of ways. Regardless, it's another high point of the album where its elements really click into place.
Following these two fairly different tracks, DOT largely sticks with the tone of the latter. While interesting synth voices do spice up some of the remaining six tracks, the band tends to rely on simmering builds to keep the experience interesting. This results in a lot of repetition, though, and for a band that already makes repeat use of its lyrics, this can occasionally be tiring.
"He Breaks It After All" is the third track and is by far the longest at nine minutes. There are positive points, especially with its soft opening. The almost orchestral use of bass drum, toms, and rolling cymbals, for instance, do an excellent job in creating a chamber-like atmosphere. However, other sonic choices, particularly the synthetic string part, are jarringly thin compared to what could have been with actual orchestral instrumentation. Later, a snare build of quarter notes that starts in halfway through churns for over three minutes with no particular climax. The other aspects of the song, too, invoke this prolonged build, and they do find some interesting twists and turns. With the repetitive title hammering over and over in the vocals, though, it's as if The Options are attempting to harness the expanding musical monologue into something with a more of a point. Much like the incredible potential of this song, however, it never quite finds it.
Other tracks like the conceptually interesting "The Back Pack Song" are similarly impassioned yet overindulgent, but this isn't true for the entirety of the album's remainder. "The Secret Eye" sticks to a catchy groove and warped effects to convey its freaky subject and fun guitar riffs to a tee. "Leave It" makes good use of its synths, especially over the chorus, where the call-and-answer line "I'm gonna find a way / To you" is sweetly buoyed. Both are also noticeably shorter.
The final track, "Two Slow Steps", ends the record on a high note. With a sound resembling a harpsichord accentuating a moderately-paced rhythm and the synthetic choir heard from the opening track, the first third of the closer is a simple but refreshingly melodic moment. After a smattering of sampled applause, though, it takes a dark turn. Using an unsettling sample of numbers stations, it transitions to static noise and moody piano as the vocalist enters with a somber performance. There are brief and effective harmonies peppered here that would have been nice in other places in the record. At the five minute mark, the song takes yet another turn, transforming the repeated "two slow steps" lyric into an inspired coda that doesn't overplay its build, choosing instead to plateau and linger. This leaves a nice resonance that suits the album well.
There are many bold and interesting choices on DOT that reveal The Options to be thoughtful and passionate about its music. These choices in particular, though, are somewhat at odds with the DIY, no-budget aesthetic the band advocates. That's not to say that it can't be done; it's just a hard wire to walk, and execution is key.
For instance, headphones are actually not the ideal way to listen to this album because of the problematic mixing. It's not bothersome for its volume levels, but for its use of stereo channels. All of the individual stem recordings compiled into each song are basically either dead center or in the far L/R channels with no middle ground, so the album never sounds as filled out as it could. Sometimes this panning even undercuts the effectiveness of a good arrangement by having a supporting line in the center that covers up a main one.
With external speakers, these technicalities are far less interruptive, so it could possibly be a nitpick to even mention. What it reveals, though, is that an outside producer or studio could have gone a long way to helping the album reach the potential it flashes all over its eight tracks. When embarking on a project as grand as this, there is a lot to consider, and it helps to have some follow through.
With fuller lyrical and musical depth, it would have probably been one of the best local releases of 2016. As it stands, however, DOT is full of unique ideas that result in some genuinely unexpected and inspired moments. For listeners that find charm in DIY recordings, it's easily a worthwhile listen. What The Options lack in depth, it nearly makes up for in vision on DOT, and hopefully the brothers won't wait another decade before finding such ambitious inspiration for the next album.
DOT is available on Spotify, Bandcamp, iTunes, and other online music services as well as at Guestroom Records on CD. The duo has also picked up a third player for live performances that should be starting up later this year, so keep an eye out for those as well.