[16 June 2005]
When looking at the back of The Orange Peels’ latest album Circling the Sun, it’s hard to get past the uncanny resemblance that lead vocalist and primary songwriter Aaron Clapp bears to Andy Dick. It’s hard, that is, until you play the music contained on said album, after which he suddenly seems to look an awful lot more like Semisonic’s Dan Wilson.
Funny, the change in perception a simple set of pop songs can inspire.
Circling the Sun is the third set from The Orange Peels, a band with as many grooves and shiny surfaces as its name would imply. They have a sound that’s instantly identifiable with the sunniest parts of California, even if the listener doesn’t necessarily know that they really are from the Bay area. Most refreshing, however, is the fact that this is a band that sounds legitimately happy—an increasingly rare feat in the modern, alternative-rock world of lost religion, dirty ground, and digital ash. The sound of The Orange Peels is something along the lines of R.E.M. if every song R.E.M. ever did was some variant on “Shiny Happy People”—though lead vocalist and primary songwriter Allen Clapp is vocally smooth enough to suggest something more on the side of Toad the Wet Sprocket than R.E.M. It’s jangly pop-music, pure and simple, and if that doesn’t sound like something you’d be into, you may as well stop reading right now.
Those of you who happen to still be reading will be pleased to know that The Orange Peels do the jangle-pop thing quite well. When they want to be peppy, they can be peppy, as the quick tempos, three-part harmonies, and propulsive drums from Peter Anderson (one of three different drummers on the album) set out to prove on the standout “I Don’t Wanna Shine”. “What’s it Like (Mary Jo)?” is just as catchy, and trying to keep track of all of the guitars (at least six tracks worth of which are credited in the liners) is a fun little side-game. The title track is almost obnoxious in its good feeling, with Clapp riding an arpeggiated melody and nearly Blink 182-ish vocal inflections straight into the same sun that he’s singing about.
It makes me want to bop, and trust me, I don’t bop much.
Where Circling the Sun really shines is in the moments when the band breaks the formula a bit—they tread cautiously in their experiments, to the point where anything that might be an experiment is really more of a production touch to push a song to the next level. A Flaming Lips-ish devotion to bombastic string and horn synthesizers marks the euphoric opener “Something in You”, and a lovely four-bar organ-based interlude lends the perfect amount of weight to “Boy in Space”. The prize for best song (and most likely shot at widespread success) goes to “So Right”, one of the most grounded of The Orange Peels’ compositions, but also one of the most beautiful. Dominated by pianos, lovey-dovey lyrics and fantastic pop hooks, it’s a senior prom theme waiting to happen. I mean that in the best possible way.
Unfortunately, the one place where Circling the Sun falls short is in memorability. The disc is a quick 34 minutes, the lyrics never have anything profound to say, and it’s the sort of disc that falls all too easily into the background. The overly pleasant feel never demands attention, and there’s no extra kick to keep you listening, save a few really fantastic ventures into pure pop hookery. Sure, “Circling the Sun” uses clever imagery to express the acceptance of aging, and “Tonight Changes Everything” is a quick, urgent two minutes, but neither of them set themselves apart in anything more than superficial ways.
The Orange Peels come off as a band that’s really easy to like, but hard to really love. No matter what they’re singing about, they sound like a sunny California day, 78 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. If that’s what you need, The Orange Peels are here for you—even so, most of us need a change of scenery once in a while.