I’ve heard some of the banter over Orphan Boy (a trio composed of Rob Cross, Chris Day, and Paul Smith); as I am usually not moved to go and listen to music just because I heard some drunk at a bar drop a name or two, I did not cross bath with Orphan Boy again till the other day. I started listening to “Passion, Pain, & Loyalty” (2 August 2010) this weekend; on my ride home from a night of debauchery, I blasted the album and two things came to mind right away. The first was this sounds dated, but not at all 80s. The second was this sounds dated, are the 90s slowly coming back? I do not state any of this as a criticism; on the contrary, I believe that the band wanted the album to sound this way, capturing a mood and feel of yesteryear. Orphan Boy stands as one of those bands rejecting the 80s influenced crazed of the moment (for the most part), which I imagine would bring them the ire of some, but it is a welcomed change of pace, especially when speeding along Route 3 in New Jersey.
The album kicks off with “Letter For Annie”; the track has a long, drawn out introduction that would make the likes of Ride jealous. “I wrote you a letter, cos you’re not listening anymore,” sings Rob Cross, and later sings, “You wallow in romance, while the ones that love you grieve.” A “letter” but it is in a song, though the person is “not listening” anymore – cheeky irony! This is one of these weighty “showgazy” song, almost drowning in its own undertow, laced with a thriving bass and dirgeful guitar. When the beat finally drops, you are no longer floating on air; you are dropping fast, crashing towards the ground. “Pop Song” follows, and I like the way the guitar is crisp, almost jangly, while everything else is muttered and affected. Then comes “Harbour Lights.” Opening with vocal effects, including backmasking, you may think it is going to be a harrowing number, but when the beat drops, the rhythm section really carries the song into a feel-good post-punk influenced number. But it is not the post-punk of the early 80s, but rather the threads found in the late 80s and 90s in shoegaze.
The piano in “1989” is almost ironic – considering all of the 80s nostagia lately, you would think that at song named “1989” would use more synthetic sounds. Again, the song is very muttered, very “shoegazy,” and though it has a piano, I would not call this piano pop/rock at all. Instead the piano functions much the same way as an arppeggiated rhythm guitar would. This is followed by “Anderson Shelter Blues,” aptly starting with a harmonica, narrates the story of trying to survive during war. Anderson shelters were designed to be a small wartime shelter for families, and were even supplied for free to lower income families in the UK before the outbreak of World War II. “I remember it well, I was ten years old, the sky was filled with mustard smoke; in the wine cellar all spirits broke… I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, or why the gunfire rattled and fell…” Without being preachy, the lyrics concentrate on the people’s reactions to war, while the music allows the listener to ponder, contemplate the issue.
The highest compliment I could give to this album is the final track, “A180.” The song is musically dramatic and visceral; lyrically the song is resigned to reality (“We gave our minds to this, they explained, we cannot win. There’s footsteps in the footnotes boy, and all your failures keep you thin.”) Slow, harrowing, with a piercing lead guitar arrangement, I would imagine that if a young David Bowie were writing now, this is the song he would write. And that statement, my friends, says it all.
Now I ask a favor: what ever you do, do not call Orphan Boy Madchester or shoegaze. They are neither. “Passion, Pain, & Loyalty” (great descriptors of qualities of life) exists in a niche that may graze elbows with these genres, but comfortable fits in none. This is a band that is continuing to grow and wet their feet in new musical terrains, slowly maturing their musical style while not clinging to one musical reference or genre. If any one album has taken me by surprise this summer, this is it.
1. Letter For Annie
2. Pop Song
3. Harbour Lights
5. Some Frontier
7. Anderson Shelter Blues
8. The Promise
9. Untitled #9
10. A180 Song
Keep up with Orphan Boy at their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.
Here is their video for “Pop Song” from their YouTube Channel: orphanboyuk.