On the coldest weekend felt in Brooklyn in the winter of 2003, eight musicians who made up the first incarnation of Oakley Hall took to the studio. Once located on a Brooklyn loading dock, the since razed Eastwood Studio and Studio Tropicale (the site of Oneida's recordings) housed the recording session that resulted in Oakley Hall's self-titled debut. The group's vocalist, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sullivan, will recant that the band had two reasons to be inside the barely heated studios that weekend -- one being the extreme cold, the other being the raising of the newly inaugurated terrorism color alert scale by the U.S. government to the second-highest level (the first time it had reached such an altitude since its inception).
Technically, the ironically dark "You Wouldn't Believe What I've Been Up To (Since You've Been Gone)" is out of place on the album. Leah Blessoff's slow, solo vocals and simple guitar chords and a few organ notes float wearily over lyrical content amounting to how many different ways she has attempted suicide since losing her lover: "So razors and rope/I wrap round my throat/'Cause that is the fashion this year/In our old garage/I start up the dodge/But I won't be driving nowhere." But though its impossibly bleak words and simplistic music don't resemble the rest of the album, the song's unabated passion is purely Oakley Hall.
The album is raw Americana energy, twangy guitars, and vocals, accentuated by banjo, lap steel, and fiddle. "Color the Shade" appears in its original format with its messy clamoring of distorted guitar and banjo (it would later appear on 2006's Second Guessing). Oakley Hall often strays between indie rock and Americana, but winds up eventually revisiting its down-home porch-picking feeling on songs like "Foolish Heart." The male and female lead vocals have always made Oakley Hall stand apart from other groups, as the band succeeds at blending the two vocalists together. Sometimes the mixture turns out better than others, with "Five Sided Dime" being one of the album's better songs. Oakley Hall is never boring. "Ridin the Dog" is loud and raucous, as is "Lookout Below," a heavily distorted version of mountain music, with a rousing banjo solo. The album closes with the grand finale of "Tuscaloosa," a beautiful, plaintive song more than seven minutes long, highlighting Pat Sullivan's unique vocals and undeniable songwriting talent. Oakley Hall is one of those rare debut albums that touches on a variety of the band's musical identities. It succeeds in giving new life to roots rock and Americana, but often prefers to remain in the comfort zone of paying homage to traditionalism. While listening to Oakley Hall, it's easier to picture the band recording live over a sultry summer weekend in the back country of some Southeastern state rather than on a loading dock on a freezing New York day, but such is Oakley Hall -- always full of surprises and never ordinary.