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Oranger At A Crossroad

San Francisco — "It was a junior high dream come true... You pass out at a friend's house and wake up and you're playing with R.E.M.!" said Mike Drake, lead singer and guitarist for San Francisco's subterranean, psychedelic, alternative-pop band Oranger.

"Bono told me he had our record and played it in his car!" continued Drake, recalling a surreal conversation he had backstage at the Marley Park Festival in Ireland. "Then Joe Elliot of Def Leppard and Peter Buck were talking to Bono, and Bono was telling Elliot how important Def Leppard's 'Pour Some Sugar on Me' was to the sound of Achtung Baby."

The 2003 summer touring experience with R.E.M. cemented Oranger's reputation as "a band's band"; Peter Buck had personally invited them to join the tour in Manchester, England (and open for R.E.M. in Ireland as well) after purchasing their first two albums earlier this year.

The little-known, San Francisco-based band is pinching itself, returning to its hometown somewhat stunned at having toured with some of the biggest artists in the indie world during the past few years, including the late Elliott Smith, Guided by Voices, Wilco, and R.E.M.

Oranger — Matt Harris (guitar, bass), Jim Lindsey (drums/percussion), Patrick Main (keyboard) and Drake — draw on the '60s pop of British Invasion bands such as The Kinks, The Who and The Beatles, as well as the Beach Boys and The Byrds. One can hear echos of Big Star in their sound as well. And yet there's nothing retro about their sound, which seems totally of the moment.

In late September the group's third album, Shutdown the Sun, was released on the Jackpine Social Club label. It was recorded last year at San Francisco's Plymouth Sounds Studio. Drake, during an interview at SF's plush red cellar club Café du Nord, said the new recordings "evoke a stripped-down and raw approach, compared to the baroque chamber psych of 2000's Quiet Vibrationland." (The title track can currently be downloaded from the 'Gramophone' section of Neumu.)

The album flows effortlessly through a thoroughly unique blend of genres, and includes, as Drake describes them, the "Pink Floydy, country-psych-pop" flavored opening track "Cut off Yee Thumbs," the "Crazy Horse/Muswell-era-Kinks, hard rock/country groove" of "Outsider" and "Tree Bent," and the "jazzy Burt Bacharachish inverted love song" "Just a Little Dumb."

"On this record, [the band] is really starting to gel," Drake said. "We're a little nervous because its not quite as garage rocking, sugary pop like the other stuff we've done...but I think the songs are just better, in a mature way.

"Everything we do has to be entertaining for us, and we play live the same way," he added.

This was evident at the album release party, where the band constructed a life-size reproduction, from painted cardboard, of the colorful & groovy Sgt. Pepper-influenced landscape of pillowy clouds, rolling green hills, flowers, and a giant rainbow featured on the album cover for the stage. "It looked like a 3rd grade play. At the end of the show we gave the set away and autographed it — everyone wanted a tree!"

Oranger often perform in costume. "We try and make the shows an event. It's more fun when people come out to a weird party!"

The group's Web site also reflects the unique Oranger sense of humor. "We used to have this entire fake discography on there, made fake album covers, described each one, but then we started getting these emails from people in Denmark asking where they could get a copy of Triple Live Bongo." Drake also confessed the liner notes for Shutdown the Sun "were spiced up a bit."

The first 3,000 copies of Shutdown the Sun includes a 34-track bonus disc. Oranger fans can decide for themselves if this newly released vintage material is a departure from, as Drake puts it, "the lonely child in the attic with no friends, having a tea party with stuffed animals" character of other earlier Oranger songs. "[These songs] kinda didn't fit anywhere else, because they were weird; we cleaned the closets out, and there would have been more but we ran out of space," he explained.

On this crowded disc you will find rare gems, complete with explanations and descriptions of each in the liner notes. Regarding "Gorilla in a Rucksack": "someone left a copy of Physical Graffiti out too long and it spoiled"), while for "Friend to You" they write: "train engineer falls asleep, crashes, and wakes up in some kind of hellish Disneyworld cartoon afterlife." Also included is a live version of their ode to the Beach Boys, "Mike Love Not War," recorded at SF's Bottom of the Hill in 2000.

Oranger formed in 1997; their first album, 1998's Doorway to Norway, came out on former Pavement singer/guitarist Scott Kannenberg's Amazing Grease label. "The first record we wanted to be a garage version of The Who crossed with the Beach Boys," the unassuming 32-year-old Drake said with a boyish smile.

They followed in 1999 with the "more elaborate" Quiet Vibrationland (released on AGR in the U.S. and on Alan McGee's Poptunes label in the UK), recorded on a 16-track tape machine formerly owned by their idol, the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. "You could smoke the karma of it," said Drake.

They came to the attention of Elliott Smith in 2002, and he had them open his European tour. That same year they won a Bammie (Bay Area Music Award) for "Best Pop Act." In 2001, Guided by Voices drafted them for their UK tour, as well as many of their shows in the U.S. They spent 2002-2003 appearing with Wilco and R.E.M., as well as writing and recording Shutdown the Sun.

Fall has found Oranger contemplating the band's future, and the title of the new album, Shutdown the Sun, reflects their melancholy mood. Drake explained that despite the band's remarkable touring success and well-received new album, they're at a significant crossroad, uncertain as to whether Oranger can survive these difficult economic times while still remaining true to their eclectic musical essence.

"This record is very stark and darker, a lot more acoustic," he said. "When we lost our practice space [last year], it changed how we worked as a band. I had to set up the studio in my house, [and we] couldn't be very loud because of the neighbors. It's been a tough year for everyone. The music isn't suicidal, but more up-close and emotional. Our earlier stuff has been kind of sunny; this is a little bit darker, a lot more introspective." For more information about the band and for tour dates, check out their official Web site. — Nicole Cohen [Monday, November 24, 2003]

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