What is rock 'n' roll if not the sound of youthful exuberance? In that context, Orange Juice might just be the greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time.
Led by a young Edwyn Collins, he of the "A Girl Like You" international mega-hit in the mid-'90s, Glasgow's Orange Juice burst onto the UK music scene at the very dawn of the 1980s. Their sunny and soulful indie pop sound stood in stark and intentional contrast to the doom and gloom of Joy Division and post-punk at the time, both predating and presaging the bright colors and sonics of British new wave.
Orange Juice's name, simultaneously ridiculous and perfect, could not have fit them better. Collins and his cohorts were all youthful insouciance and charm and their music mixed influences as diverse as disco and the Velvet Underground, ostensibly polar opposites. Not only did Orange Juice combine them, but the resulting sound was one all their own. Bright, trebly, quickly-strummed guitars underpinned by thumping basslines and dance-worthy drumming on one hand, tremulous-and-awkwardly-endearing balladry on the other. The bridge between the fast and slow songs was Collins' inimitable croon, as effortlessly charming as his lopsided grin.
OJ weren't especially great musicians and Collins was not a pitch-perfect singer, and this imbued their songs with a signature charismatic frailty. They staunchly and self-consciously played beautifully imperfect pop, joyously unconcerned about occasional bum notes or vocals wandering slightly off-key -- technique was nothing, feeling was everything.
Of course, to get the feeling across you've got to have the songs to do it with and what a fantastic songwriter Collins was (and still is today). Witty, literate, campy and boasting a self-deprecating sense of humor, his OJ material is simply the essence of youth and all its glorious contradictions. Ever the romantic, the singer runs the gamut from supremely confident ladykiller ("If I may be so bold as to make the assertion that your other lover is just a diversion") to humbled lovelorn defeatist ("I'll be your consolation prize although I know I'll never be man enough for you"). His rapier-sharp wit never fails him ("Here's a penny for your thoughts and, incidentally, you may keep the change") and never fails to enliven the music.
To say Orange Juice were ahead of their time is as true as the phrase is cliched. Despite producing just one UK top 10 single while together, 30 years after their recorded debut on the now-legendary-but-at-the-time-created-for-them Postcard Records label, the band's influence still resonates both musically and in the do-it-yourself spirit in which their music was made.
For ample proof, check out the BBC documentary Caledonia Dreamin', in which OJ have their praises sung by Teenage Fanclub, Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian and others as founding fathers of not only Scottish pop, but British indie music in general.
For still more proof, treat your eyes and ears to the fantastic Coals to Newcastle, the career-spanning Orange Juice retrospective on six CDs and a DVD. Naturally, there is self-deprecating humor inherent in the title, though not readily apparent, at least to Americans. According to this UK website, "carrying coals to Newcastle" is a British phrase meaning "To do something pointless and superfluous" because that city was already loaded with the stuff as a center of the coal trade.
The false modesty of its creators aside, this compilation is chock-full of treasures. While there have been scattered OJ compendiums over the years, this is the first time the band's early independent work has been joined with their subsequent major label efforts to present the complete picture of the seminal group.
Five of the six CDs in the package chart Orange Juice's chronological progression, each anchored by recording touchstones of the group's career. Disc one offers the glorious original Postcard singles -- both A and B sides -- and the demo album posthumously released as Ostrich Churchyard in the early 1990s. Disc two features the effervescent You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, the major label debut album on Polydor which sadly turned out to be the swansong of the original quartet. Discs three through five find Collins soldiering gamely on with an ever-changing lineup that created a more polished, though no less joyful, noise and saw the group score their lone Top 10 UK hit with "Rip It Up." Disc six gathers five BBC radio sessions recorded while the group was extant. Each disc is also augmented with curios such as alternate and live versions, flexi-disc and cassette-only songs, interviews, etc. All told, there are 16 previously unreleased tracks in the box.
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The seventh disc in the package is a DVD which holds the two music videos the band made (including "What Presence?!" directed by the late Derek Jarman), four TV performances and a posthumously released (originally on VHS) concert video. It's fantastic to see these visuals, especially the live material, but it would have meant so much more if some footage, ANY footage, of the original quartet -- who were presented with a Lifetime Achievement award at Scotland's Tartan Clef music awards in 2008 -- could have been included. Perhaps none exists and that's just a very minute quibble with an absolutely stellar box set which also features a gorgeous 48-page booklet with period photos, a terrific essay on the history of the group and an epilogue that brings its members into the present. Coals to Newcastle is available now on Domino Records.
As mentioned above, Collins continues with his career in music to this day. His excellent new release, Losing Sleep, can be previewed, along with a couple of videos, on his website. The album contains the first material he's recorded since nearly dying of two cerebral hemorrhages in 2005. Left unable to speak, read, walk or even feed himself, Collins' remarkable and ongoing comeback to health and his music career are documented in a fine BBC documentary, Edwyn Collins - Home Again, and a wonderfully touching book by his longtime partner/manager Grace Maxwell entitled Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins. Like the Orange Juice box set, Collins' new album, the documentary and the book are all highly recommended.