My semester abroad had been a typical one. Having stumbled off the red-eye – London Heathrow, January 2008 – I stood around waiting for the university shuttle and watched as the others slouched atop bloated, bowlegged trolleys. The bus heaved a mechanical sigh at the curb, a great rolling microwave, to jerk us around for nearly an hour on the drive to King’s Cross. Anticipation begot nausea. Eventually, though, we, the willing exiles, became settled. I would stop twice weekly at the local Tesco to buy microwaveable curries and beer. Days slunk past on pints of the cheapest cider or canned Stella Artois. Everybody wanted a cigarette. Within ten days, it seemed, classes had become a mere scattering of flimsy hurdles between the beckoning nightlife and ourselves. The pubs and the clubs, the shows: These had become the seedier (read: more attractive) wings of UCL’s educational hub. And if, (as I believe to be the case) my experience reads typical on paper, it retains its personal relevance within the memorized confines of these places.
On one occasion (it must have been around this time last year), some friends and I found ourselves at the Barfly in Camden, a reliable little chain-op notable for its prime real estate (on Winehouse turf, no less) opposite a Banksy spray-can original. Playing that night was a local five-piece called Orphans & Vandals, a gaggle of skinny bohemians who caught my ear almost immediately, if not my eye, for the house was quite literally jammed to the rafters. The first song I heard, probably, was “Strays”, though I could be wrong. What I do remember is a feeling of compulsion, of the hairs on the back of my neck standing upright. Shivers began. I remember sensing, almost instantly, this band was too good for its inebriated audience. The sobering faces of a select few confirmed this.
Eventually I met the band, a week or so prior to my leaving the UK, in order to exchange contact information and wax embarrassing on the subject of their Velvet Underground-meets-Patti Smith appeal. I later wrote an interview feature for PopMatters in which I discussed artistic influences and songwriting themes with singer/guitarist Al Joshua, who, as it turns out, is far more interested in the works of Arthur Rimbaud and Harry Partch than that of his occasional contemporaries Jarvis Cocker or the Arcade Fire.
The fruit of that interest falls with Orphans & Vandals’ first full-length release, the cinematic I Am Alive and You Are Dead. Here, an unusually cohesive album of surging, literate rockers is interspersed with the Vandals’ own particular brand of preternaturally considered chamber-folk. It begins with the ragged violins of “Strays”, a narrative piece that lays the groundwork for the album’s emotional keystones: bewilderment, exhilaration and melancholy. “I am here,” sings Joshua, “I am ignited, every filthy breath of death under my dress gets me excited.” Sordid tongue twisters like this one appear on the album again and again, marring the lines between sexualities to seize the underlying sensuality native to any individual with a beating heart.
Proceeding with this trend, “Mysterious Skin” represents the epitome of the Vandals’ lyricism, a prodigious epic woven from the details of an artistic pilgrimage to Arthur Rimbaud’s birthplace in Charleville-Mézières. Here, Joshua apologizes to his hero with a plaintiveness alien to most of modern rock, “You know, I hate to leave you here, but I’ve got to go.” It’s the defining statement of a highly conceptual record: I am alive, and you are dead.
Musically, too, the album stays intently focused in its arrangements. While the songs themselves may be relatively simple — the up-tempo cuts generally use only a handful of chords – each track is an intricately textured affair. Violins and violas feature prominently on the wistful closer “Head on With Tears”, as well as the ebullient “Terra Firma”. It’s on “Metropes”, however, that Orphans & Vandals’ galvanizing effect is most readily felt. Snide, visceral and relentlessly catchy, it’s a tale of urban squalor and socialite debauchery fighting viciously to break through its own nervous battery of thumping bass, toms and bells.
This kind of tension, it seems, more than adequately summarizes the nature of Orphans & Vandals’ prime achievement with I Am Alive and You Are Dead, an album filled with reckless characters projecting elaborate webs of meaning onto a world bleak with meaninglessness. It’s an album that quotes one of Robert Frost’s best-known lines without coming off as sophomoric. As a rock record, it is simply tremendous. As a debut, it so exceeds expectations the mind reels. The fact five separate individuals have been able to coalesce this beautifully — and to produce art this vital — renews my faith in rock ‘n’ roll for at least another decade. Anger, joy, devastation and black humor — really, it’s all here. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you 55 minutes of the best music you will hear all year.