Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Artist Primer: The Oranges Band

Every music snob has at least one, if not a few, bands who never made it big that they'll never get over. It's the band that they keep telling you "should be huge" or is "just like (insert more popular/respected band here), only better." It's an inevitable part of being a devoted music fan, the need to feel that only you can recognize a unique genius that all others either gloss over or never encounter. For me, The Oranges Band fits that model to a "t".

The Oranges Band is primarily the project of lead singer/songwriter Roman Kuebler. It's a Baltimore-based band that draws a lot of water in their hometown but rarely gets out much anymore (as I discovered in college, booking them twice, only to have both tours fall apart). They've been together since 2000 and have seen multiple lineup changes and labels but have managed to put out an amazingly consistent string of albums and EPs in that time that all retain a core sound and sensibility.

The Oranges play a jangly, upbeat, only occasionally experimental brand of pop-punk/indie rock that dooms them to be forever compared with whomever the band du jour in that world is. The Smiths, Guided By Voices, Strokes, Shins and Spoon all pop up as reference points in various reviews and none of those are unfair, but they do the music an injustice. While the DNA of all those bands is in the blood of these songs, Kuebler incorporates elements of laid back 50's innocence and clean production that none of those artists touch on.

The Oranges Band's first shows were in Baltimore in early 2000, which was quickly followed by that staple of the nascent indie band - the van tour. It was from these early experiences that the band's first releases sprung. Local label Morphius Records put out their first two releases in 2001 and 2002, which were both rough-hewn EPs with self-explanatory names ($5 [EP] and 900 Miles Of Fucking Hell, respectively). The EPs were higher-energy, lower-fi affairs than any of their later work which lends them a vitality and scratchy charm. Songs like "A&R Job", "Nextstopexjock" and the non-instrumental "Instrumental" are all about as clever as their titles indicated but also pack simple guitar hooks and runs that will bounce around your head for hours.

Clearly there were at least a few people who saw similar potential in these songs, because after releasing their second local EP in spring 2002, they were scooped up by west coast pop-punk label Lookout! Records, which put out their On TV [EP] that same fall. This release smoothed some of the rough edges off their initial sound and focused on taut, spiky bursts of guitar that led to the inevitable Strokes comparison. Both "Success" and "My Street" proved that this was a winning formula for the band, but even amidst the blur of three-minute-and-under songs, the group showed that they could work just as well when they let the songs breathe ("The Self and Siddhartha") or added a few experimental touches ("When I Fell Into The Bay"). At this point though, it was clear that The Oranges Band was writing songs and releasing ad hoc, with no larger sense of narrative or experimentation. That would soon change.

All Around, released in 2003 was a huge step forward for the band. No longer constrained to writing quick bass, guitar and drums pop songs, the Oranges Band showed that they could incorporate different musical textures and carry themes across a full-length album. It's a set of songs that builds on their pop strengths while also expanding them. First of all, the songwriting was stronger, with Kuebler managing to capture both the comfort and claustrophobia of modern urban life with an oddball approach, whether through references to biological evolution ("Finns For Our Feet") or Radiohead-baiting descriptions of apartment living ("OK Apartment"). The album was a love-letter to cities from a man still slightly uncomfortable with them. For every ode to his home "My Street", re-recorded since On TV) there was an admission of discomfort ("My Mechanical Mind"). It must also be said that kiss-off song to financiers "All That Money (You'll Get Over It)" now seems oddly prescient, given current circumstances. Overall, the album was richer, deeper but just as catchy as their previous work, with closing instrumental "All The Trees On My Street" putting a synth-tinged exclamation point on things.

All Around, however, was just a warm-up for what would prove to be the Oranges' crowning moment, 2005's The World & Everything In It. A title that big and pretentious demanded life-altering music to match and fortunately, the Oranges Band delivered. The album perfectly reflected Maryland's beach/mountains divide, with the first half devoted to shimmery, summer songs and the second to heavier material. "Ride The Wild Wave" was a tale of young love that floats along on dreamy organ while "Open Air" similarly documented the youthful rebellion of moving out over simple acoustic/electric guitar backing. "Believe" evoked the hazy heat of the beach while "Ride The Nuclear Wave" is probably still the best, most rollicking surf anthem you've never heard. The production on these songs was deceptively simple, allowing the innocent guitar leads and Kuebler's surprisingly effective singing voice carry tunes that need little else.

The tone shifted dramatically with the title track, which indulges Kuebler's love of minor studio experimentation with heavy bass and keyboard that bounces across the mix. "The Mountain" is driving guitar-rocker which is already moving enough before it drops an unexpected sample of a Winston Churchill speech at the end. If the album started by celebrating sunny escapism, it ended by buckling down and finding the joy in the mundane grind that is working life. "I'll Never Be Along Again" is a corking "I Will Survive"-style anthem about overcoming life's disappointments while "Drug City" mixed incurably catchy guitar work with ethereal vocals that manages to somehow make your morning commute sound powerfully transcendent. The World & Everything In It is a unique album, a grand statement that also feels incredibly intimate.

The album looked initially like it could be a breakthrough, as it finally started garnering the band decent press. However, after touring on The World, the Oranges underwent several personnel shakeups that kept them off the road and out of the studio. The did record a brief demo during this time and that includes one of their finest moments. "Jenny, I'm Sneaking Out" is a story of late-night escapism, perhaps the first rebellion from the kids who would later move out in "Open Air". It features a scratchy guitar, beautiful female backing vocals and yet another unforgettable melody yet never made it to a record. However, after the demos, the band did tour with Spoon (Kuebler played bass on Kill The Moonlight and toured briefly with the group) and the Lemonheads, working out new material as a three-piece.

This didn't sit right with Kuebler. He decided to recruit former Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard for their third full-length album, which came out at the beginning of 2009, some four years after their last work. Apart from the (relatively) high-profile new member, everything about the new record indicated that it was more a confirmation of the band's local/cult status than an attempt to reach out to a big audience. Titled The Oranges Band Are Invisible, the album had no artwork or liner notes (although Roman Kuebler was nice enough to send me an autograph with my copy), just a clear orange case and a cd with nine more muscular pop gems. 

The songs are heavily nostalgic pieces about Baltimore's 90's rock scene with songs like "Gordon's Nightclub", "Ottobar After Hours" and "Do You Remember Memory Lane?" namechecking local venues. The music, however, is by no means regressive. Although the sonic shapeshifting of the past two records is mostly gone, Gillard's presence is felt strongly, along with new bassist Patrick Martin. The hooks are meaty and developed, but unlike in early recordings, matched with a rich bass and confident drumming. "When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature" showcases the rhythm section's supple poppiness with a sticky Talking Heads-esque groove. Meanwhile "ArtStar" comes off initially as a catchy but bitter take-down of pretentious artists while tribute song "Toulouse-Lautrec" seems to hint that Kuebler also harbors a certain sympathy for them.

There was no national tour for ...Are Invisible (I once again booked them for early 2009 at my college, only to have it fall apart) and Gillard soon left the band after recording and playing a few local gigs. With the notable exception of PopMatters, the album received little attention nationally and Kuebler and the band seem to have settled into a role as Baltimore/D.C. elder statesmen. This is a shame because, as the first paragraph indicates, they could (should!) be so much more. The Oranges Band plays loud enough for the punk kids, is catchy enough for the Shins crowd, clever enough for your Jonathon Richmond-loving record dorks, heavy enough to satisfy the Britt Daniels acolytes and upbeat and warm enough for your Animal Collective, festival hippie set (they even get jammy once in a while). Despite all this, don't expect to see them playing your local outdoor music gathering next summer or giving an interview to Sound Opinions anytime soon (I asked Greg Kot once and he'd never heard them). But perhaps that's one of the glories of this band, even in this internet age they remain a diamond in the rough, there for the geeky few willing to do the digging... enjoy.

The Oranges Band Primer - Download As A .rar

1. Nextstopexjock  Buy Two Thousands ($5 EP Plus 900 Miles Of Fucking Hell And More...).
2. Success  Buy On TV [EP].
3. OK Apartment  Buy All Around.
4. The Trees On My Street
5. Ride The Nuclear Wave  Buy The World & Everything In It.
6. Open Air
7. Drug City
8. Jenny, I'm Sneaking Out
9. ArtStar  Buy ...Are Invisible.
10. When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature

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