Whatzup
The Orange Opera

Year of the Beard

So, what do you do to cap off a dizzying extended period of touring, bringing half of Philadelphia’s coolest indie bands to town and gaining hordes of converts in the process? If you’re The Orange Opera you head back down to the basement, do things your way and emerge with a record that’s built to weather even the toughest Midwestern winter. That’s right, Kevin Hambrick and his excellent crew have crafted yet another highly listenable disc, Year of the Beard. And it’s fitting that the bearded one himself should appear on the cover (with his otherwise shorn bandmates) in a Mount Rushmore cum Revolver pastiche of earth-toned, fittingly facial-hair-enabled gentlemen. If I’m correct about this, the album Year of the Beard comes closest to (the White Album, natch) also marked the first real appearance of the bearded Beatles.

But I digress. And you might think, at first drop, that Mr. Hambrick does too: the first cut (“Hysterical”) sounds undeniably like the Orange Opera — that is, if you know what they sound like already. If not, you’re treated to a needles-buried-in-the-red, lo-fi pop experience that might just remind you of a (yep) much earlier Fab era. If you’re expecting something more “clean,” for lack of a better term, don’t jump ship here. In fact, this nugget forces you to listen more deeply for its rewards, and they are rich. If you love this song but can do without the crunchiness, suffice it to say that Hambrick and company deliver the ultimate payoff later. Hint.

“Ruby” signals a big-time sonic shift into a more comfy zone, with sprightly pounding piano, a sturdy bassline, and Hambrick’s effortlessly effervescent vocal melody and harmony work. The song’s tempo shifts gears periodically. Those of you prone to Rockette-style kicks at a moment’s notice had best make sure there’s room before you play this song. If The Orange Opera have developed a representative “sound” by now, “Ruby” makes a great example of it. Though Hambrick, Bryan Brubaker (bass), and Kevin Hockaday (drums) pull out all the stops on occasion — with the aplomb you’d expect from a veteran unit — they play with an economy and an ease that makes nearly all the cuts on Year of the Beard go down easy. Witness the way “Both of Us” manages to be both laid back and rollicking. “Bar Fights and Fiddles” is The Orange Opera at their dusty Western-inflected best, with a tasty (and very appropriate) fiddle courtesy of Coleman Smith from And The Moneynotes — proof that this band can sink its pop hooks into far-flung genres when they feel like it. Recently departed guitarist Michael Ostermeyer’s impressive guitar and trumpet additions help make a longtime live favorite, “65 Looking for 18,” a real highlight of the disc, which was recorded at Hambrick’s secret basement lair and mastered by none other than former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer. 

The acoustic, harmony-sweetened “Fool for the Game” floats and soars without ever seeming anything less than grounded. It’s a beauty, rooted in the best 70s singer-songwriter tradition. The festivities get groovy during “Hickory Hen,” where “Crocodile Rock” meets the sunniest Summerteeth moments you can call up. The minor key-inflected “Dream I Had” jumps between driving and stately verses and choruses, and the Brubaker/Hockaday engine room keeps it all together. Songs like this have enough instrumental interest built in that multiple listens are all but guaranteed. Scratch that; you’re going to want to listen to this entire disc way more than once, partner. Year of the Beard closes with the spare title track, a bittersweet remembrance and a look forward that perfectly melds late 60s rock and The Orange Opera, circa 2009. Here’s to a Beard that never goes out of style. Year of the Beard is out December 4. You can catch The Orange Opera live at Bill’s City Grill that same evening, and at Wooden Nickel Records on December 5. (D.M. Jones)

Copyright 2009 Ad Media Inc.