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Growing Up Is Hard to Do 

With its second album, Oranger leaves its playful past behind

Wednesday, Feb 14 2001
"I feel like I'm in sixth grade," says Mike Drake, the chief songwriter for psychedelic Wunderkinder Oranger. He is sitting to one side of a sea of glad-handers at a music industry meet 'n' greet, where the band has gathered with a crowd of local musicians to network and trade music-biz war stories. Despite Oranger's three-year stint as a purveyor of lighthearted, high-energy pop, Drake doesn't want to be 12 years old again. Instead, he wants to be older, wiser, and out of the spotlight.

When the band's members first started attending mixers like these, it was important to get out and mingle, make the scene, and be known. Since then a lot has changed, and the group is now more concerned with growing its music than its name. Still, as we all know, growing up can really suck. With The Quiet Vibration Land, the band's second full-length album, Oranger has squeezed all the pain and awkwardness of getting older into 14 catchy songs. The album may also be the definitive word on a San Francisco music scene going through its own growing pains.

When Oranger first hit the scene in 1997, it was enough just to have a sense of humor. At that time, the group's wacky tales of its own musical history -- first reported through a fictitious discography that chronicled such imagined Oranger albums as The Invisible Chocolate Glove, Death Chicken vs. Laser Mouse, and Behold, Mercury!, charting the band's purported rise through the hippie, funk, and prog-rock genres -- provided a colorful back story both on- and offstage.

Drake formed Oranger with Matt Harris while the two were sidemen in Antioch's pop-punk quartet Overwhelming Colorfast. Prior to their exodus from Colorfast, Drake and Harris had been workshopping Oranger's first tunes. The pair recruited drummer Jim Lindsay, a longtime friend of Harris', and bassist Chad Dyer. Dyer left after six months, and the group remained a trio until recently, when keyboardist Patrick Main (who also plays with such local acts as Snowmen, Jolly, and the Fades) joined full time.

When the new band took to playing live, its stage demeanor carried on in the same good-time, goofy spirit as its discography. The group blazed through smart sets, performing a sendup of the Monkees' "Porpoise Song" and Stereolab covers while writing cheeky tunes like the Beach Boys tribute "Mike Love, Not War." By the time its debut album, Doorway to Norway, was released in late 1998 (on the group's own Pray for Mojo Records), Oranger seemed to have solidified a place for itself in the good vibrations rock 'n' roll scene. The band's hooky, fuzz-heavy tunes and raucous stage shows were just plain good fun -- growing up be damned.

That all changed with The Quiet Vibration Land.

On the surface, the band's new album is loaded with "do-do-do" choruses, sugary hooks, and dreamy melodies. But behind every sanguine, singsong moment on Vibration Land there's a story of failed love, foundering lives of friends, or abject misery. You don't have to dig very deep to see those good vibes go bad.

"Heaven is a dream that's never what it seems to be in the end/ You have all these things you want to say to all your vanishing friends," Drake sings on "Falling Stars." Those lines are, perhaps, the emotional nadir of Vibration Land, and they're a long way from such Doorway tracks as "Donald, You're Freaking Out" and "This Snake Will Kill You," songs Drake says are kind of silly in retrospect. "I started to realize people were listening to the words," Drake explains. "If you're going to say something it might as well be meaningful, at least to you."

Even on tracks where the music skips merrily along, such as "Suddenly Upsidedown," the songs' jaunty measures are tempered by a narrator taking his cue from John Lennon lamenting "Yesterday." On "Collapsed in the Superdome," the velvety puff of a Wurlitzer breathes in and out like a bellows, filling the song with lightness before sucking the life out of it. Although Drake says the new lyrics are no reflection of his own life, many of them focus on love gone wrong. "Anytime you write a story, you put yourself in it," Drake says, at the same time explaining how the songs were "culled from a year's worth of listening to my friends mope about stuff." But that's an oversimplification of what's at the heart of Vibration Land. "Song by song, it does deal with relationships, but overall it's more than that, I think," Drake says.

Perhaps not altogether consciously Oranger has recorded the story of a band -- and a city -- moving in new directions, which can be difficult enough. Drake didn't set out to document the faltering state of artistic affairs in San Francisco -- the skyrocketing rents, club closings, and disappearing rehearsal spaces, a reality that hit close to home when Oranger was evicted from its studio/practice space at Downtown Rehearsal as it was putting the finishing touches on Vibration Land. Nonetheless, the band seems to have swallowed everything that has happened and etched it onto the grooves of the record. "It was a weird year in San Francisco," Drake says of the period surrounding the making of the album, which began in 1999. "San Francisco has changed," he adds, "not just physically, but spiritually."

Vibration Land may be Oranger's chronicle of the now-painful direction the San Francisco music scene has taken, but it also sends another message loud and clear: Every really bad thing is balanced by something grand. On songs like "The Mother of All My Pain," for example, the story is bleak but cloaked in a sing-along chorus and cheery guitar. On the opening tune, "Sorry Paul," a catchy pop ditty breaks down into a blissful, chaotic free-for-all halfway through. Perhaps it's just a buoyant guitar line or a good beat, but with these songs Oranger seems to be saying that maybe, just maybe, growing up isn't so bad after all.

The balanced outlook is most evident in Oranger's live shows, which have remained largely unchanged. The band continues to play the part of the class cutup -- the kid who'll jump around until he has your attention -- before launching into a warm and friendly rock 'n' roll song. And although much of Vibration Land hums with the sunny psychedelic power of its antecedents -- mid- to late-period Beatles, orchestral-era Beach Boys, and acoustic Kinks -- the album's aura of melancholy indicates all the rules on the playground have changed.

Still, you've got to move forward, and in the past few months, Oranger has done just that. This past fall the band toured Europe as the opener for Elliott Smith, played a CMJ showcase in New York, and won this paper's Wammie award in the pop music category -- all before the release of Vibration Land.

But even before the album came out, Oranger was already hard at work stumping for the city's music scene. Last year Drake and Harris founded Amazing Grease Records with ex-Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg and Excite co-founder Ben Lutch. In addition to releasing Vibration Land, reissuing Doorway to Norway, and putting out a recent Oranger 7-inch EP, The Bluest Glass Eye Sea, the label has released records by such local acts as Sunless Day and Carlos, with efforts by Persephone's Bees and the Moore Brothers on the way. Drake also works with the local Popular Noise Foundation, which, along with the Save Local Music organization, gets heavy play on both the band's and the label's Web sites.

The members of Oranger realize that saving San Francisco's music scene is a battle worth fighting. This point was driven home for the group while on tour in Europe. Audiences who'd never heard of the band before cheered when they were told Oranger was from San Francisco. "People don't cheer because they love clam chowder," Drake says of the artistic reputation San Francisco continues to carry.

On the same European tour, Drake witnessed state-sponsored arts subsidies in action. While he says it was cool to see artists getting paid steadily by the government to create, it made him wonder if San Francisco's current situation isn't a blessing in disguise. "The chaos that drives the underground might make artists try harder," Drake says. Maybe the current economic direction will root out all but the most stalwart souls, making the artistic output that much more poignant. Of course, "that's just one theory," he adds.

Whatever happens, Drake is well aware of the space Oranger currently occupies in the city's musical landscape. "We're in a lucky place," he says. "We're established enough that we can get through this. If all this would've happened three years ago, Oranger might be nothing more than a footnote."

About The Author

Todd Peterson


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