The OaKs

Songs for Wating - 4.5 stars

Over the last five years, artists have been gathering en masse to attack President Bush and his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The protest song as a genre has been picked clean: artists have circled its corpse like vultures, eager to scavenge every shred of meat they can find. All the preaching of Neil Young, Bright Eyes, and Rise Against, however, can’t come close to matching the depth of insight and feeling offered by The OaKs on their new album, “Songs For Waiting.”

In 2003, Ryan Costello—lead singer and songwriter of The OaKs—moved to Afghanistan to work on humanitarian projects that helped returned refugees. Upon returning to America in 2005, he joined up with his old friend, drummer Matthew Antolick, and The OaKs were born. The group donated 50 percent of the profit from their 2006 debut album “Our Fathers and The Things They Left Behind” to charities helping Afghan refugees. Now, with their sophomore effort, The OaKs have returned to spread their message to the mass audience it deserves.

Unsurprisingly, the album deals largely with Costello’s experiences in Afghanistan. Second song “Masood” details the story of a 16-year-old whom Costello befriended during his time in Kabul. After the boy’s father died suddenly, Masood was left as the head of his family. The song’s lyrics, such as “I lied awake thinking of the hope that’s laid on me,” perfectly lay out the heartbreaking reality of this story and the situation in Afghanistan. Musically, the song builds to a sweeping climax worthy of Arcade Fire, and within the first two songs the album has already reached emotional depths other artists often miss in their efforts to make a quick point.

Even more stunning is “War Changes Everything,” a protest song so spot-on in its commentary that it instantly makes all others from this century redundant. A description of how war corrupts and changes people, it springs from Costello’s own experiences but is universal in its impact. When he sings “I’ve sat alone on a mountaintop in a foreign land and wondered at how foolish humans are / Always at war,” one hopes that some future or current politician is paying attention.

Wisely, The OaKs resist the temptation to fill the album purely with songs describing war and its effects. Amid the intensity of tracks like “Masood” and “War Changes Everything,” numerous moments of light and hope shine through.

The lyrics of “The Attraction of the Pilgrim,” a meditation of the healing power of music, offer fresh insight into what may seem a slightly cliché subject: “I can see reflected in you something deeper and true, something hard to understand.”

In “Pike County,” one of the most touching and hopeful on the album, Costello’s observation that “the sun broke through after years of darkness” shows that he has hopes for a better world. The female backing singers, with their “hoo, hoo” support, add additional levels of sweetness to a beautiful song.

The album is almost as fascinating musically as it is lyrically. The influence of Sufjan Stevens is present throughout, perhaps a result of the involvement of Alan Doucher (who helped mix Stevens’s “Illinois”). But the subtle incorporation of jazzy elements and the album’s more explosive moments—particularly on the epic track “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”—show that The OaKs have found their own identity. The musicians are clearly technically gifted. If every element of the album was stripped away until just the hi-hat remained, it would still be a thrilling listen; such is the invention and detail of the music. From the organ of the opener to the delicate instrumental closing track that shares its name with the album, every song is fresh and beautiful.

“Songs For Waiting” is an essential listen that is as deep and thrilling as any album released in recent memory. The OaKs have used personal experience to create a work of universal importance, and now the vultures will have to find something else to scavenge. A bigger and better rival has arrived.