Seven wonders. On album No. 7, The Orange Peels are confronting the significance of making music in the current social and political climate. What does it mean to make art in tumultuous, polarized times? Does it change the game altogether? How can music make a difference? Can it?
On “Trespassing” (Minty Fresh/ Mystery Lawn / Redeye Distribution) the band wrestles with all these questions, turning their gaze inward to see where it all might have gone wrong, and outward to ask the big questions about our place in the universe. It’s a welcome exploration for the times that finds both despair and hope at the end of its many rainbows.
The bulk of the album was written by original bandleader Allen Clapp bouncing ideas off bassist Jill Pries during a drought-busting California winter, which saw three months of solid storms. 100 inches of rain, mudslides, broken roads, and strings of power outages. Once the weather cleared up, the band convened at Clapp’s redwood-laden, mountain studio (Mystery Lawn Mountain) to begin work on a new album.
This time out the band decided to reunite with Bryan Hanna to produce the sessions. Hanna and the band worked together in the producer’s hometown of Minneapolis on their debut album “Square,” (1997) and their third, “Circling the Sun,” (2005).
Having Hanna at the console allowed the band the time they needed to reacquaint themselves with the music — and each other, as drummer and multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Coan had relocated to Philadelphia, and guitarist John Moremen had just spent the better part of year working with Matthew Sweet.
From the get-go, “Trespassing” pierces the heart of our fragmented and polarized culture with a plea to the universe: “Can we switch to Camera 2? There’s something I think we might all be missing.” Change is afoot, and we need a wider view — or at least a second camera angle — to figure out what to do next.
“Running Away” sees Clapp turning the lens on himself with the same unsparing search for truth. He’s running away. He’s hiding for fear of being seen — or saying something he might actually mean. It’s a pop-perfect Northern California ode to mountain towns and lost weekends, delivered with the angsty drama that only fellow Northern Californians like Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks seem to be able to muster.
The dystopian pop of “Stealing Days” weighs the social cost of fighting back against enemies with the refrain, “You can tear me down if it builds you up, You can wear me down if it makes you feel better.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s elation in the grooves of “Room 222” where miracles could be lurking around any and every corner as the loopy, off-kilter rhythm provides structural support for waves of ethereal emotion. And there’s longing in the magic of “Mountains,” where Clapp invites the listener to “Tell me something by the Rowan tree, Tell me something about you, about me.”
“Dawn Tree” embraces the natural world, leaving plenty of space for acoustic instruments and a soaring string arrangement by composer Mike Brown. “Heart Gets Broken by the Song” depicts the songwriter’s dilemma — a fleeting muse that can’t be tracked down when you need it, and a lyricist’s conundrum in the realization that “Ooohs and Ahhhs can tell you more than stanzas.”
For a band that sounded fully realized on its debut disc 20 years ago, it’s really saying something that this, the band’s seventh outing, sounds like they’ve uncovered something entirely new. The Orange Peels of 2018 sound like a band just beginning to discover its true potential. Maybe it’s the times we live in that called for a new outlook. Maybe it was that unusually wet California winter that washed away the old. Or maybe it’s something about the number seven.