[1 February 2006]
Last Night the Oranges Band Saved My Life
Obscured by the more dramatic scene of three eye-lined, multi-millionaire American Idiots taking their life-preserver back catalog away from Lookout Records was the fact that, for all of the things they got wrong, Lookout got it right in 2005 by releasing the Oranges Band’s The World and Everything in It. The album sweeps and swoops and shows off an attention to detail and craft that makes it possible to talk about the band in the same breath as some of its more recognized contemporaries. “I’ve said this before,” says Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler. “I’m not really interested in making brand new music. I’m kind of interested in taking music that I like and kind of interpreting it in a certain way. That being said, I don’t do that all the time.”
The World and Everything in It‘s concise pop songs are full of nostalgia and longing, fleshed out with naked optimism and sometimes crisp, sometimes bent and slurred guitar lines from Kuebler and lead guitarist Dan Black. The Oranges Band is the real scoop, this is its best album so far, and even if you don’t know it now, you’re going to miss them if or when they aren’t around anymore. Pegged early on by reviewers as a summer album because of its liberal applications of sun and surf imagery, the album’s “summer” is partly a red herring. Some of the songs evoke sun-filled beaches, but they don’t overlook the things that make life hard and ugly, either. It’s just that they don’t dwell on them, not when there are this many hooks to ride to salvation, or at least to an abiding happiness.
The hooks brought out here make you remember the best parts of being younger. At the same time, they stay away from a hard-nosed, nostalgic insistence that the places we once were are better than where we are now. Like the title of the album, the songs take everything in, from personal reflection to global observation: “I had a dream and I had to live it out” resting comfortably alongside “There are so many waves in the ocean and so many shores they’ll be breaking on.” Speaking with Kuebler, I said that one of the amazing things about Maryland was that it has Baltimore, a great city, but only two hours away is Ocean City, a great beach town. “And two hours in the other direction are mountains,” Kuebler reminded me, and I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten about that (the album even includes a song called “Mountain”). So maybe I’m not looking around hard enough, or not getting out as much as I should, or maybe I got short-sighted by the sand and beaches in the songs and forgot what drew me to the album in the first place… that there was more to it than what first grabs your attention.
“Music Is Motion”—so goes one of the band’s mantras printed in an early press release. It referred to the band’s active touring routine, but it also gets at one of the best parts of pop songs: the way that they should move you around inside your own imagination. When The World and Everything in It opens, it’s like a sunrise over Penn Station. The black sign with the block white letters is staring at you through the window bearing only one word: “Believe”. Maybe you’re waiting for the six o’clock train to New York (or “capital N, capital Y” as Kuebler calls it), or maybe you’re off to DC for the day, or headed further south. My friends used to joke that Baltimore is what happens to you on your way to some place more interesting on the East Coast. But for the runtime of the Oranges Band’s new album, it’s the axis that the entire world turns on. It’s a sweatshirt night on the Boardwalk after the sun sets in Ocean City. It’s the breathless last night of a summer spent working down the beach. It’s the desperate desire to hold onto the feeling of life being infinite in the face of the Earth sometimes spinning flat. It’s a drug city where “nobody sleeps alone” and you aren’t sure “where morning starts and night stops”. It’s Amber, who was 19 but looked 23, and who told you that you could do anything and made sure that you did it all. Like I said, it’s a summer album—then again, it’s a lot more.
The narrator of “Believe”, the album’s opener (inspired, it turns out, by The X-Files and not by the Baltimore slogan), isn’t so much pleading with you as reminding himself that the act of believing may be all that there is at times. “I’ve been out on the tiles for miles and miles, but still I believe.” He repeats the word like a mantra. But believe in what? Love? Memories? The future? The album gives different answers depending on where you’re coming from. “Ride the Wild Wave” and “Open Air” are the two most openly nostalgic songs on the album, and their effect is so strong that they can overwhelm some of the other more subtle effects elsewhere. They sum up younger days and acknowledge that there’s more to be found. Lines like “When you and me met we defined 17 and summertime” are all sunny memories. When he sings, “We were never wrong / We had all the time in the world”, Kuebler entwines the feelings of being young and falling in love. He sings in the past tense, with no bitterness for what’s gone, and he pulls it off so completely that you get lost in the scene. The lovers in the song believe that summer can still be endless and that waves can take you anywhere in the world that you need to go, and they aren’t wrong because they haven’t yet learned their own limitations. In “Open Air”, love only lasts as long as a summer spent living at the beach. Kuebler can talk about the immediacy of falling in love as being “so at a loss for words” and you believe him, because you know that if there were words to be had, he’d find them. By the time “Ride the Nuclear Wave” begins, there are sharks coaxing you into the water, lying and telling you that it’s all for your own good, threatening to “swallow your whole world” if you aren’t careful.
Working on its own in the studio (with friends engineering), the band (Kuebler, Black, Tim Johnston, and Dave Voyles) had the time and the resources to be more precise and conscientious in the development of both the writing and recording. Where their debut album fell just a bit short of being fully fleshed-out, The World and Everything in It is more of a complete thought, warm and open where some of their earlier songs could freeze you out. “For this album I took a more conscious approach towards making the lyrics a little more substantive and personal, or at least more obviously personal,” Kuebler says. “I think on earlier stuff there are some clever lyrical ideas and good imagery, but on this one it is a little more direct.” The vocal delivery is also more direct and settled, too, leaving room for vocal harmonies that make the album’s sound even more distinctive. “We were conscious to vary the guitar sounds… cater them to our parts as much as possible. We tried to get some interesting sounds as well. I mean, the recording is very layered and I think there are some real unique things going on. A lot of the backing vocals I think are cool, and I was really trying to create a background layer with them that really is evidenced in repeated listening.”
The band has been together for a little over six years, releasing one other full-length (2003’s All Around) and an EP on Lookout! (2002’s On TV), and two more EPs on Baltimore’s Morphius Records (2000’s The Five Dollars EP and 2001’s Nine Hundred Miles of Fucking Hell). They’ve toured with Ted Leo, Guided by Voices, the Hold Steady, and Spoon. Kuebler spent time as a bass player with Spoon and appears on Kill the Moonlight. He’s also part-owner of the Baltimore rock club the Talking Head, an amazing little place with a low ceiling over the stage, a pool table upstairs, and a men’s room down the back stairs that can be seen into from the back alley if you forget to shut the door. He’s been about as active supporter of Baltimore music as one can be for years, while pushing his own band out across the country. Being so involved in both the business and creative sides of music, he has first-hand perspective on how things have and haven’t changed in the last 15 years.
“It seems that there have always been tons of bands,” he explains. “There have always been critical favorites, gimmicky bands, the next big thing… all that. There have also been the consistent producers of good music who have worked a long time and eventually gained some recognition. What I mean to say is that these things are very similar. The difference is the scale. Now, big and small bands are in movie soundtracks. Indie bands are selling a half a million records. But again, I think it is a phenomenon that is not new or unusual, it’s just more publicized. It seems word gets around in a different way due to the Internet, and it might reach more people. But that has caused an adverse reaction to local music. I think that big bands are bigger and small bands are probably smaller… I don’t know if that is true or not, but it seems about right.”
Live, the band is exciting and immediate without being overbearing; it’s a sound developed through persistent touring. After the break-up of his previous band, Roads to Space Travel, Kuebler booked a West coast tour before he even had a band together. Since then, the Oranges Band approach has been to keep the band out on the road. It feels corny to call this old-fashioned, but it’s still worth noting. It’s an ideal—that a band is worth taking precedence in your life; that a good band is a priority worth pursuing—and it’s an ideal that gets harder and harder to live up to as you get older. Even if you’re just a fan of music, it can be hard to find time for getting out to shows and exposing oneself to new music. When you’re the band—having put everything else aside to spend weeks and months at a time in a basement recording and working on songs; or piled in a van, dealing with failing equipment and a routine lack of money or time; and constantly needing to reaffirm that, yes, it’s worth it—the ideal can seem almost completely untenable. But maybe the lesson is that when the results are better than you could have hoped, or as surprisingly good as you had hoped, you don’t find yourself asking the question as often.
Throughout its career, the Oranges Band has been around other bands that have stuck it out and made their way nationally. “I don’t know that it specifically kind of inspires me anymore than, say, being around Chris Myers (Water School), or Gary Barrett (Your Imaginary Friend, Gary Barrett and the Antiquated Notions), or Greg Preston (Slow Jets, Mean Spirits),” Kuebler admits. “These are the people from Baltimore that are the best songwriters and I think they’re every bit as good as Britt Daniel, I think they’re every bit as good as Robert Pollard and hopefully one day somebody else will recognize that. But being around those two, or more recognized people, Ted Leo included… being around these people kind of inspires me in the sense… here are people who approached music in the way they want to approach it, and who didn’t compromise what they felt they wanted to do, and it came around to them, and eventually people came around to them. And that’s the lesson I get from Spoon and Guided by Voices. All these people who are my age or older finally seeing a little bit of success and a little bit of recognition.”
Since hearing this album for the first time while driving around Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve listened to it dozens of times, and it’s outgrown the summer and survived into the Boston winter. I saw the band live three times in 2005, including a hometown show at the Talking Head in Baltimore. I was grateful that the people I had driven down with felt the same excitement from the show that I had, that they’d been thinking about how kinetic and sweeping the band’s live sound was, and wasn’t that sadly a rare thing to find. Since the moment the album really hit me, sitting around the apartment one night worrying over laundry and, I’m sure, other stupid things, when I thought I pulled a reading out of “Ride the Wild Wave” that in retrospect isn’t there to be had, I’ve gushed about it to everyone I know, and been embarrassed about how much I like it to the exclusion of other albums. I even managed to convince one friend to buy it while walking around a record store in Ottawa.
I knew I wanted to write about The World and Everything in It, but it’s taken me five months to get something together. I wanted what I wrote to be as good as I think the album is, that it would make a million of you want to run out and buy the album too, and to fall in love with it the same way that I had. But I know that’s not going to happen, because I’m not remotely as good at writing about music as the Oranges Band is at making it. Either way, because of the Oranges Band, I’ll always have this album to put on when I need to make the world feel less small, or when I need to remember to get off my dead ass and get outside and do things. Which is something. Which is a lot, really. Music is motion, indeed.