Ona’s first album, 2015’s American Fiction, was an underrated gem of a rock record. It was the perfect document of a band coming out fully formed and confident, with songs so expertly crafted and digestible that they separated themselves from the slew of others who cite Neil Young and Wilco as influences. If it had come from the coasts or a more thriving music community, it’s the kind of LP that could have set the band on a fast track to enviable tour bookings and national press acclaim. Instead, the Huntington, W. Va. five piece spent the last four years grinding it out, and have returned with Full Moon, Heavy Light, out Friday via Hickman Holler Records/Thirty Tigers. It’s an excellent follow-up that’s even harder to ignore, and we’re streaming it in full ahead of its release.
Formed in 2013, the band gets its name from a small unincorporated town 15 miles west of Huntington, where lead singer Bradley Jenkins is from. "In Ona, there’s a high school, a gas station, a race track, and an Arby’s. That’s about it," says Jenkins with a chuckle. When he moved to Huntington after graduating high school, he met guitarist Zack Owens and the two began writing songs, sometimes in Owens’ apartment and other times at jam sessions in an old movie theater after hours. They added bassist Zach Johnston and drummer Max Nolte, who’s also from Ona, and started quietly releasing songs.
One of their first songs "Tornado Rider," which later appeared on American Fiction, is a good example of the band’s charm. It’s a pastoral slow burner that patiently unwinds over six minutes, with a soaring guitar solo from Owens and subtly weary twang coloring Jenkins' croon. But while the slide guitars and rustic arrangements fit the first LP, their interests expanded and evolved even as friends like former label mate Tyler Childers found success with Americana. "We didn’t really consider ourselves an Americana band. We don’t want to be country because we’re from the country and want to do something different," explains Owens.
For Full Moon, Heavy Light, Ona picks apart the formula they started with, ditching their inside joke of "What Would Neil Young Do?" for a warmer and less orthodox sound. As they became a more polished live band, landing tours opening for Childers as well as Ohio’s Caamp, their songs spread out and settled into a groove. "I also remember hearing Sam Evian’s records and just being floored by the tones on them," says Owens. "Same goes for way older records like Shuggie Otis. We put a lot of emphasis on setting a vibe. We weren't relying on just overdriven sounds, we were finding more spacey textures and didn’t want to just make a rock record."
At its core, Full Moon, Heavy Light is full of breezy and wistful songs. Take the single "Young Forever," for which Noisey is premiering the video below. The track is moonlit and nostalgic, showcasing the band's newest member, keyboardist Brad Goodall, giving the song twinkling nuance and Jenkins assuringly singing, "If I messed you up, if I made you cry / I know you’ll carry on." The song builds to a romantic organ-led crescendo, complete with an extended guitar solo jam that never seems gratuitous. "The song that got us going was Zack writing 'Young Forever.' It gave us direction because it actually sounded like the stuff we were listening to and wanted to push ourselves towards. After that, 'Summer Candy' came together super quickly," says Jenkins.
Lead single and album opener "Summer Candy" is even more sunny. Armed with a delightful lead guitar riff, the track is filled with hooks and a distinctively summer aura. It’s the kind of windows-down car jam that the season is made for. Similar moments on the LP come from the propulsive guitars on highlights "True Emotion" and "Golden Highway Deserter." "Speaking for all us, we're in much happier places in our lives since American Fiction. We've grown up together. A couple of us are married, we have kids, and have kids on the way. Our state of mind is a lot more clear now," says Jenkins. Even when the album’s shades turn darker, like on the brooding "Quito," it works.
The band recorded the LP with Drew Vandenburg (who’s worked with Stella Donnelly and Drive-by Truckers) decamping to his home studio in Athens, Georgia. They credit him, Tecate beers, and travel as the key ingredients for how Full Moon, Heavy Light came together. But more importantly, they want to show another side of their hometown. "We're not, like, from the rolling hills blah blah blah," jokes Owens. "First off, if you came to Huntington. It’s a college town. We have like 12 different fancy pizza spots like everywhere. We listen to the same music you do. It's a college town. We’re not out here with no shoes on."