In 1995, a group of high schoolers from Pasadena joined to form a band. Three were already friends; one, fourteen-year-old Daniel Brummel, had responded to an internet ad. Over the next few years, they added a keyboardist/flutist, started putting together some early demos, and named themselves Ozma, after the L. Frank Baum books on the drummer’s mother’s bookshelf. In 2000, they released their first “proper” album on their own label. In 2001, they were selected to tour with Weezer. This association with Weezer—as well as their remarkably similar tone—lent Ozma the label “power pop.”
Power pop was a distinctly turn of the (twentieth) century sound: a cousin of emo without the black clothing, a bit too sweetly naïve for indie rock. Musicians of the genre blended the melodious, hooky nature of sixties pop with the more driving, guitar-fueled elements of rock, producing an end result that was catchy but still cathartic. While the sound bubbled up in the late Seventies and early Eighties through groups like Big Star and The Romantics, the emergence of Weezer in the mid-Nineties brought a compelling weirdness to the scene. The Blue Album, released in 1994, features a droll song instructing you on how to destroy a sweater (“Hold this thread as I walk away”) along with “Buddy Holly,” the irresistible hit celebrating Weezer’s status as outcasts in black-rimmed glasses.
Plenty of bands had done alienation before, but Weezer’s music was grounded in an identity-based alienation—specifically, geekiness—that set it apart. Pinkerton, released in 1996 and a classic for most Weezer purists, is a batch of next-level weirdness and specificity: a lament of a crush’s lesbianism, a creepily touching ode to a too-young Japanese fan, an admission of sexual overexertion. Mixing self-conscious, geek-specific alienation with the coolness of rock, the band had ushered in a style particular to the mid-Nineties.
While Weezer and Ozma share an almost twin-like relationship, not only sounding similar but also touring together, it’s less likely that one strongly influenced the other than that both emerged separately from the same cultural soup. The question is how one could have gotten so deservedly popular, while the other has remained so unfairly obscure.
Emerging in step with the new millennium, Ozma’s geeky power pop was distinguished by its youthfulness. Much of the young earnestness of the early 2000s was typified by emo, which focused mainly on finding the most cringingly, painstakingly apt explanation for how and why you hurt (consider Dashboard Confessional’s “Screaming Infidelities”: “As for now I’m gonna hear the saddest songs/And sit and wonder/How you’re making out,” or even just the song title “Again I Go Unnoticed”). The problem with emo is that, despite the almost incomparable release it provides to a hurting teenager, it becomes completely unlistenable somewhere between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, in tandem with the development of self-awareness. By keeping their sound generally upbeat and their lyrics fun, Ozma rather brilliantly evoked youthful earnestness without falling into the emo trap. Their lyrics were cute and baldly emotional, but still clever:
An apple pie, the number pi
I studied you in math class (Oo-ooh)
And did all my work
But never got your digits
Like Weezer, Ozma had a foreign fixation, working the Soviet Union into their second album, The Doubble Donkey Disk. Not one but two songs revolve around the flight of Yuri Gagarin, and their driving take on the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki” (also known as the “Tetris song”) was especially popular among fans (and lives on, appearing in the movie Kick-Ass 2 in 2013). Elements that might tread dangerously close to the line of self-indulgence manage to resonate. Rock and Roll Part Three (2001) includes a song called “Natalie Portman” that is really just a ballad mourning the unattainability of Natalie Portman. It could easily be a stupid lark, a jokey take on a band member’s Hollywood crush; instead, it’s an oddly stirring and accessible meditation on the cheap promises of fame (“Maybe she’s alone/What can I do?/There’s nothing, there’s nothing I can do”). Their inclusion of the balalaika (an obscure Russian string instrument) in “The Flight of Yuri Gagarin” is a pleasantly authentic touch, and the keyboardist Star Wick lulls us into, through, and out of “Continental Drift” on the flute, infusing the song, which takes places in the airport, with an appropriately airy feel.
For all its appeal to teenagers in the early 2000s, Rock and Roll Part Three is a strongly nostalgic album. In addition to the obviously backward-looking “In Search of 1988,” almost every song is some iteration of an appeal to a lost love. “Apple Trees,” referenced above, is aimed at an old high school crush; “Shooting Stars” imagines a lover returned from war who’s been replaced; “Rocks” is a briefly playful ditty about turning over stones to find an ex (who, of course, has moved to Boulder, Co.). But one of the best (and achiest) tracks on Rock and Roll Part Three is “Baseball,” which looks back on an idyllic baseball season before the collapse of a relationship:
Is our season over?
No four-leaf clover
I feel it getting colder
Now that it’s late fall
Can you still remember?
April to November
You and I were members
Of the best team in baseball
Given their fixation with aging and the passing of time, it might seem counterintuitive that Ozma’s music struck such a chord with me at fifteen. But the emotions of a teenager, while concentrated, aren’t necessarily simple; you can long to be an adult and long just as much for your receding childhood. And the intensity of longing that goes into missing a three-week-long relationship can feel like three years’ worth. I listened to “Baseball” on repeat for weeks, if not months, on end.
Ozma’s three early albums dropped neatly in 2001, 2002 and 2003, before they disappeared into their own projects and then reappeared a few years later in fits and starts. I discovered them through an upperclassman friend in 2003, just in time to collect the first two albums and await the third. If the first album was distinguished by its punny nostalgia, the second, Doubble Donkey Disk, was mainly incredible fun. Heavy on the instrumental dance and geeky lyrics (“Maybe in Legoland you’re mine”), the album weaves in softer, more atmospheric numbers like “Immigration Song” and “Continental Drift.” In less capable hands it could feel disjointed or schizophrenic. Instead it feels well-rounded and distinctly modern—half the songs are either Soviet in theme or otherwise directly reference geographic dislocation, while the other half chart various types of dislocation from a relationship.
Ozma was my first concert—the first band I felt was important enough to seek out and watch. At the show, my friend and I ran into guitarist Ryen Slegr outside the bathroom, and, too young to distinguish between shades of fame, were starstruck. He seemed mildly drunk and a little embarrassed to be waylaid by two awkward fifteen-year-olds after taking a pee, but smiled and signed our flyers nonetheless. It was a defining moment. I had been a requisite fan of N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears in my preteen years, but those fixations were impersonal, universal, like buying Lip Smackers or shaving your legs. They were more signals than anything, an indication that you too were interested in adult things.
Ozma was different. I could identify the quality, appreciate the weirdness, feel the angst in the lyrics. Being their fan taught me that value didn’t have to equate with popularity. For the gifts they gave us in the early 2000s, they were almost criminally underappreciated. Their three albums only garnered a handful of reviews online, passed over by Paste and Pitchfork and NPR Music. They toured extensively and had a small, committed fan base, but very few people have ever met me with a look of recognition when I’ve brought up their name.
Their third album, 2003’s Spending Time on the Border Line, rounded out the three as the most adult, the most coherent, and the saddest. The power pop label still holds, but you get the sense they’ve started to press further into adulthood. “Restart” examines corporate depression. The lovely “Utsukushii Shibuya” returns to the long-lost love and seems, with some resignation, to bury it for good, while “Wake Up” urges reconciliation in the wake of relationship strife and fatigue. While I loved this album too, it seemed somehow fitting that it was the last before they broke up, citing tensions within the band. There is a tiredness to it:
I’m standing still but still I’m spinning
This journey ends at the beginning
It seals my fate in the great figure eight
Ozma was a gateway drug. It led me to dip a toe into emo—yes, including Dashboard Confessional—before I moved on to submersion in a wider array of music in all directions. The band announced their reunion in 2006 and released another album, Pasadena, in 2007, but I was already in college at this point, newly enamored with Emiliana Torrini, and couldn’t bring myself to listen to it. They were back at it, but for me their music was a recently buried time capsule.
Ten years on, I’m finally getting to a point where the music is more salient than the memories associated with it. I can open the capsule and recall why each song mattered to me, but time has also given each one a new birth. The magnitude of events associated with my fifteenth year feels less like a trauma to relive and more like a narrative to revisit. After chewing the cud for long enough, it loses most of its flavor.
Now I experience the best of both worlds; the music retains an essential emotional charge, but those emotions have drifted free of their moorings. Likewise, I have enough distance to appreciate the loving construction, from the seamless affinity between the various instruments to the total lack of cynicism in the vocals. You don’t have to be young to appreciate Ozma’s first three albums. You just have to recall what it’s like to be young—that is, to allow yourself to feel, unguardedly.
I queued up some Ozma in a friend’s car the other night as he was driving me home. Smiling dopily, restrainedly, I kept laughing and struggled to explain myself. But I couldn’t, and was left with, “It’s just so good.”
Maybe this will be the year I listen to Pasadena.