When the California Oranges’ self-titled debut opens, we find vocalist/guitarist John Conley at home by himself, lonely, seeking comfort with his “favorite crutch”: the films of John Hughes. That might sound like the set-up for a pop song soaked in either cheese or irony, but it’s neither. Conley sounds as sincerely melancholic and emotional here as he and vocalist/bassist Verna Brock sound on the rest of the album. The most significant part of the lyrics to “John Hughes” isn’t Hughes himself, but the general feeling the vocalist gets across, the idea that movies are a surrogate friend when life’s letting you down. And the most significant thing about the song is that it rocks like few pop songs you’ll hear, and is as catchy as the catchiest rock song ever sung. California Oranges succeed with flying colors due to exactly those facts; they wed the deepest emotions with the most sugar-sweet pop melodies and upbeat, energetic rock. All in all, it’s a perfect combination.
Falling in the same general neighborhood as power-pop groups like Wolfie and Weezer, California Oranges speed through 10 songs in under 30 minutes. Yet unlike with some other short releases (EPs passed off as albums), this is a complete, cohesive album; you don’t feel cheated whatsoever. It has enough genuine feeling and enough beautiful melodies to leave you thoroughly satisfied. The lyrics throughout offer equal amounts of sadness and love (“I can see that you’re dying inside tonight / Your eyes are telling me that something just isn’t right”), as my favorite music always does.
The band avoids the twin traps of much indie-pop and indie rock music these days: filler and phoniness. There’s no extra notes or songs, and they avoid any trace of pretense. Somehow they manage to steer entirely clear of excessive cuteness as well, even with a quirky project like “So Much to Do”, where Conley sings from the perspective of Spider Man. That song’s not only a sharp shard of pop, but gives a remarkably human voice to a superhero (like an indie-pop version of Unbreakable). The album ends with another potentially goofy moment, Brock’s ode to her childhood idol Olivia Newton-John, which is as honest, as moving and (of course) as rocking as everything else here.
The two singing/songwriting members of California Oranges, Conley and Brock, were previously Holiday Flyer, a mellow pop outfit I always wanted to like but never managed to fall in love with. As California Oranges they’ve joined with drummer Ross Levine and pumped new life into their songs. The songs are short, snappy and 100% memorable. Throw in a healthy dose of heart and you’ve got the first classic summer album of 2001.