Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Orange Juice: Coals to Newcastle

Orange Juice
Coals to Newcastle
Rating: 4.5/5.0
Label: Domino

It takes about seven hours to listen to Coals to Newcastle's six audio discs - tack on more time to plow through the DVD that's also included - but goddamn if it isn't worth almost every last minute. A certain degree of mental fortitude and a whole lot of down time are required, much like listening to 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions or Dylan's bootlegged Rolling Thunder rehearsals, but it's immeasurably enjoyable nonetheless. Compiling the band's complete studio discography and throwing in enough extras to satisfy long-time fans, the box set is an exhaustive and meticulously compiled summary of a band whose influence can still be seen in the best - and, yes, the worst - that current indie has to offer.

Orange Juice's original lineup of Edwyn Collins, James Kirk, David McClymont and Steven Daly has practically been canonized, and rightly so; the first two discs included here, consisting of that foursome's first Postcard recordings and debut Polydor album You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, are nothing less than the sound of modern indie rock being shaped, twisted and perfected. Enough has been written about those early songs to render further commentary superfluous; suffice it say that the band's 1980-1982 work is required listening for anyone even remotely interested in indie history as well as those who think Scottish indie music began with Franz Ferdinand or, for those who are really enlightened, If You're Feeling Sinister. The commercial backlash that followed Orange Juice jumping ship to Polydor now seems both quaint and silly; it's simply a matter of personal taste as to whether a listener prefers the lo-fi Postcard or the polished, glossier Polydor versions of "Falling and Laughing," "Dying Day," "Consolation Prize" and "In a Nutshell," among others. In whatever form, these songs are as close to perfect as music gets.

The band's first lineup change would precede the release of Rip It Up in late 1982, with Daly and Kirk replaced by Zeke Manyika and Malcolm Ross, who had previously produced some of the band's Postcard songs. That album's self-titled track gave Orange Juice their only significant UK charts hit, and the album as a whole found the band abandoning indie-pop in favor of a style that fused funk, soul, reggae and disco. It might be grounds for psychological treatment to claim that Rip It Up trumps the original lineup's work, but there is plenty to like here, particularly the Four Tops' homage "I Can't Help Myself," "A Million Pleading Faces" and "Flesh of My Flesh." In hindsight, the stylistic changes that occurred between You Can't Hide Your Love Forever and Rip It Up are more dramatic than those the distinguish the Postcard recordings from that debut album.

The severely stunted Texas Fever EP was released before Orange Juice was, at least officially, reduced to the duo of Collins and Manyika for the 1984 swan song The Orange Juice. Usually bluntly dismissed as the band's most dismal efforts, Coals might change that perception somewhat. Both recordings are probably best enjoyed in small doses and have plenty of flaws - McClymont and Ross reportedly half-assed the EP's sessions, and "Punch Drunk" and "A Sad Lament" lend that sorry tale credence, while "Scaremonger" and "Salmon Fishing In New York" do the final studio album no favors - but some flashes of brilliance do cut through both records' trendy 1980s' production techniques. Both "Bridge" and "What Presence?!" rival the band's celebrated earlier work, and The Orange Juice is notable for containing some of Collins' most cheerless lyrics.

The band's one-liners are already the stuff of indie legend - "I'll never be man enough for you;" "I hope to God you're not as dumb as you make out;" "What are we/ If not a couple of specks of nothing;" "How I wish I was young again" - while a few stomps through this set show the band was never entirely as fey/campy as they were usually depicted - and as they frequently depicted themselves. Their songs could be as cynical, fatalistic and downright mean as any snarling post-punk band, although the lyrics' biting tones were often obscured by Collins' odd vocal delivery and the songs' peppy arrangements. Orange Juice could rock - check out the 1981 Postcard 7'' version of "Poor Old Soul" and the shambolic live songs that close the first disc - and this collection should dispel the simplistic image of the group as lovesick, twee lads.

Coals to Newcastle warrants a purchase for newcomers as well as those who already own The Glasgow School (2005) alike, despite some overlap with that previous compilation. It corrects the sorry state of disrepair the band's discography has been in for years, the Postcard-era excluded; it also contains a respectable amount of previously unreleased material, adds a bunch more alternate takes, live tracks and miscellany than only an Orange Juice super-freak would already have and tacks on a full disc of BBC radio sessions with stellar versions of some of the band's most representative songs, including "Lovesick" and "Wan Light." The packaging is classy, with vintage photos and enthusiastic, though occasionally cutesy and too-clever, liner notes by Simon Goddard. More live inclusions would have been nice, but Coals to Newcastle is as flawless as such box sets can be. Barring the discovery of previously unknown tunes or good old-fashioned greed, it looks to be the final, definitive word on the band's studio history.

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