Oso Oso: Sore Thumb

The liturgy of Oso Oso is built from finding the perfect view, feeling sand between your toes, and watching the sun rise. You know the motto: Life Is Good. Though frontman Jade Lilitri culls his sound from the malcontent and often misogynistic legacy of Long Island emo, his lyrics fawn more than they fight, staring doe-eyed at the universe. In his native Long Beach, New York, it’s easy to find the Biblical in the everyday—the vastness of the Atlantic is never more than a mile away, and the town was devastated by Hurricane Sandy only a decade ago. The sea is a running motif in his work, and on Oso Oso’s fourth record, Sore Thumb, it’s a fatal mission: “Captain of my own Titanic,” he sings on opener “Computer Exploder,” trapped in a fated battle against his own worst impulses. If emo had its Herman Melville, Lilitri could be the strongest candidate.

Sore Thumb wasn’t supposed to be the band’s next record—or at least, not quite in this form. In early 2021, Lilitri and Oso Oso guitarist Tavish Maloney spent a month with longtime collaborator Billy Mannino at his studio, writing and recording early ideas for a follow-up to 2019’s leap into anthemic pop, Basking in the Glow. But the would-be demos took on new weight soon after they wrapped when, less than a month later, Maloney suddenly passed away. These dozen songs, written between LSD trips and video games, became an unwitting memorial to a late bandmate, cousin, and best friend. Aside from mastering and mixing, the album has been essentially untouched since they recorded. It’s a document of abstract experiments and stoned afternoons, stranger than any Oso Oso record while still buzzing with his pursuit of bliss.

The album’s intimate origins—days on end spent in the studio during a pandemic winter—are reflected in its exploratory flourishes and madcap experiments. For the first time on an Oso Oso record, there’s plinking piano, whistled melodies, warm synths. It’s telling that one of the last things Lilitri shared before the album was a cover of the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping.” Sore Thumb is the closest thing to his Revolver, a drug-fueled, freewheeling expansion of their sound: slanted Britpop (“Pensacola”), jangling folk (“Because I Want To”), and reggae accented with a vibraslap for good measure (“Father Tracy”). There are still weightless falsettos, restless guitar solos, and refrains that crash like tidal waves—Oso Oso never sacrifices a perfect pop hook for the sake of eccentricity—but they’re now flecked with auxiliary percussion, pitch-shifted vocals, and backmasking as a counterbalance to their power chord sugar high.

Where Oso Oso’s previous efforts shared thematic ties—a fictional town, the quest for contentment—the closest thing to a unifying concept for Sore Thumb is the creation of the album itself. The record is filled with glances behind the music—count-offs, studio banter, a dusty room tone. Oso Oso have often felt like a band created in a lab for the O.C. soundtrack, layering Beach Boys harmonies over a perfected emo formula of drop-tuned guitars and stadium-sized choruses. There’s still plenty of that here—“Nothing to Do” sounds like a power-pop fever dream—but it’s even more moving to hear the songs that feel rushed, private, incomplete. It’s the same quiet vulnerability that made Basking in the Glow’s “One Sick Plan” such a standout, packing the same emotional weight as their larger than life songs with a more humble setup.

Updated: March 21, 2022 — 11:00 am