The Orange Opera
It seems The Orange Opera’s ascendancy from local cats to grizzled touring vets has produced a byproduct: here’s a tidy 6-song mini-album out just in time to celebrate their return from a month-long Southern jaunt. It’s been a hectic couple of seasons since the O.O. crew brought Dr. Dog (and, soon after, seemingly every cool Philly band) to our humble patch of the Midwest – Kevin Hambrick and his band of merry pranksters recently set out for Illinois and produced a prime set of songs for the high-profile Daytrotter website while simultaneously juggling the hot new batch of tracks you’ll soon be able to sample. The latest, presented by local FM treasure Little Brother Radio, is called Ant Muscle. It follows up a “properly” recorded full-length debut (Land of Tall – buy it) with a playful set of concise tunes and fantastic, colorful cover art.
Imagine (no pun intended) an alternate universe, early 1970s. Lennon and McCartney are one guy, a singular force of pops craftsman and rock statesman, strolling into Abbey Road’s studios with a head full of T-Rex. That’s the opener, “We Can’t Fight It,” in a nutshell. Besides Hambrick’s joyfully over-driven vocal, no one instrument sticks out of the fuzzy, burbling mix. “We Can’t Fight It” is good fun and vintage Orange Opera. On to the second track we go: “Good Girl” is sweet n’ sad, reminding that nobody in these here parts does foot-tapping melancholy better than Hambrick. A downright friendly piano/drums/bass/guitar arrangement is punctuated with the surprising addition of a trumpet, courtesy of O.O.’s newest member, Michael Ostermeyer (who also contributes tasty guitar).
As for “Squirrel Feet,” I’m just gonna come out and say it: this song might just as well have been called “Mr. Blue Squirrel,” because The Orange Opera simply nail the breathless vibe of E.L.O.’s inescapable classic, right down to the interjected panting and layered vocals. It turns out to be an ecstatic burst of sunshine guaranteed to at least slightly improve your day. “I’m Just Beginning” captures the smart, stop/start style the band showcases so well live (particularly bassist Bryan Brubaker and drummer Kevin Hockaday). It’s a solid, tune, and, to the combo’s credit, they wisely avoid going over the top.
The vintage-sounding “Ice Cream Store” could’ve been an AM radio classic in another era. It manages to evoke waves of nostalgia while remaining a flat-out concise pop jewel. “Needles and Pins” is star-kissed and just a little bit on the crispy side – driving enough to invite a little volume knob abuse, but still plenty inviting ... plus, it hints at “Back in the U.S.S.R.” just a little bit. Groovy.
Rumor has it this record was produced in a “non-studio” setting, using the same techniques Hambrick has employed on his last couple of solo outings. Well, it works. Ant Muscle maintains an intimate, slightly quirky feel while benefiting from a lineup at the top of its game. It’s tight, tuneful and never overplayed. Though they’ve been here all along, let’s welcome The Orange Opera back home.
Be sure to head over to Wooden Nickel’s North Anthony store on Saturday, July 12 at 2 p.m. for a free, all-ages Ant Muscle EP release show. The Os will also play a second (more beverage-friendly) release show on the night of July 17 – this time at Mid City Grill with Detroit’s The Good Things. Show kicks off at 10 p.m. (D.M. Jones)
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