Friday, July 13, 2012

The White Oranges - "Steamboats are for the Romantics"

The White Oranges - “Steamboats are for the Romantics”                                  7.6/10   

Having spent my entire life growing up in what is known broadly as “Mid-Michigan,” I can connect with the idea of escapism, being aggressively unsettled, under-stimulated, and losing one's self to dreams.  Upon hearing The White Orange's debut album “Steamboats are for the Romantics,” it seems that singer/guitarist Justin O'Kelly is stuck in a similar mindset.
On a basic level, the White Oranges play a version of “Indie Rock.” Their debut album, “Steamboats are for the Romantics” finds them grappling with multiple influences while trying to dig out a specific sound to call their own.

The opening track, “Blackmore No More” comes in full-on Indie-folk.  This is a short, clever 1 minute indie-folk ditty, complete with group backing vocals and the only acoustic guitar you're going to hear for the next 30 min.

As soon as track two starts, it becomes clear that O'Kelly has spent some time with a few Death Cab records. The songs aren't ripping Gibbard and Walla off, but a song like “The Garden” with lines like “and how many times must I write, to your ghost” come off as missing pieces of Gibbard's journal. The song has a longing, a desire for something no longer present. But like early Death Cab, that longing comes hand-delivered with a sort-of youthful exuberance and earnestness that has become so familiar in the world of post-Transatlanticism Indie Rock.

The assumed first single is “New Zealand,” a song that starts off as pretty as the previous track. The song is a slight conversation. “How are you feelin' tonight, darling” O'Kelly's nameless female character asks; the answer is a laundry list of travel destinations mixed with sometimes rational, sometimes blatantly outrageous, borderline juvenile and offensive desires like “kill a couple cops” or “burn down a forest.” O'Kelly sounds restless, he just wants out of the place hes been his whole life. This is a pseudo-universal desire, and being 19, he has the time, matched with the writing talent to get his wish sooner, rather than later.

The A-side finishes off with some inconsistency. “Ambrose Road” isn't a bad song, for as straight-forward an indie rock song as it is, the slightly off-kilter percussion of drummer Kyle Roksiewicz shines through. The problem is that overall, the track falls flat. The Oranges tried to fill the track, adding a trumpet and a group chorus at the end. But those extras don't really fit well, they seem forced.

The last A-side track is an entirely different beast. “The Dutchess” is a 6-minute monster with great build and an insistent drumbeat. It fits in well with the rest of the A-side, aside from the fact that it's just better than the others. Within “The Dutchess” resides another O'Kelly character telling someone that they've “gotta leave town while you still can.” The line carries serious emotional weight. And the whole song, along with the hypnotizing guitar continuously persisting behind O'Kelly's voice, gives the song the feel of a dream. To supplement that feeling, they injected an excerpt from Richard Brautigan's “In Watermelon Sugar” for good measure. Blending a soft female voice and a haunting vocal-modded male voice each reading the excerpt, the story, about talking tigers eating a child's parents becomes almost sickening to the stomach.  This leads to a low and ominous voice repeating, “when did you find out this wasn't real?” The Oranges have been in on the joke the whole time, but are very serious about it. The Brautigan interlude leads to the outro; outrageous guitar swells, noises from all over, and slam-happy percussion that end the A-side on a powerful emotional note.

Then the B-side starts; the voice is just as smooth, but suddenly it's as if Ben Gibbard quit Death Cab, and started doing the vocal work for The Black Keys. GARAGE BLUES? Yes. The B-side is the stronger side of the two. As soon as “Living Water Blues” starts up, each song has a punch. Both of the albums guitar solos(which are particularly groovy for a 19-year-old from Caro, MI) reside on the B-side of town. Though what truly separates this side from the previous is the band finding what could become its original voice. The A-side was too resonant of other Indie Rock already out there. But when this band is (forgive me) “rocking out” a bit, and O'Kelly is still spitting lines like the precious, Gibbard-loving man that he is, you get the feeling that the White Oranges are carving their own spot in the very crowded world of “Indie Rock.”

The last track, titled “Attempting to Build a Flying Machine Out of Stuff in Your Basement” is the heaviest, most unabashed moment on the record. The guitar is thick, Roksiewicz is pounding the shit out of the drums, and the fills take what is a pretty straightforward jam, and completely fill it out, a solo right at the end, and it's over.

Like with many debut albums, “Steamboats are for the Romantics” is a bit unfocused. It also seems that at times, they are trying to do too much, which can be good(The Dutchess), but more often than not hurts the overall album(trumpet, group chorus.) Something that might end up being a rather divisive issue is the band's inclusion of bass parts in their songs. This is a two-piece band, guitar and drums. It's not against any law for a two-piece to use extra instrumentation, and some of the bass parts on this album sound pretty good, even a bit funky. But I believe this band will be better off finding a way to make more noise with just their two instruments. They have the talent, and the time, and a debut that, even flawed, has my ears perked and ready for more.

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