Music Features, Spotlights

Spotlight: Orange Juice – Coals To Newcastle

Orange Juice - Coals To Newcastle When discussing the post-punk musical landscape of the early ’80s, it’s impossible to overlook Orange Juice. Fronted by Edwyn Collins and his somehow confident and self-deprecating creeping croon, this group of Glasgow misfits laid the groundwork for an entire DIY movement. Orange Juice began their six-year history self-releasing 7″ records on their own Postcard label before eventually moving on to Polydor.

Those early recordings convey adolescence in all its sloppy eccentricity, and their Polydor albums add layers of funk and afro-beat to Collins’ self-diagnosing, hyper-literary lyrics to surprising effect. To follow the course of their career, one discovers a sort of bell curve from spindly minimalism to polished pop-sheen, and very nearly all the way back again.

Over the years, any number of indie-rock acts have claimed Orange Juice as a defining influence – not the least of which being fellow Scots Belle And Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand. The problem, though, for budding would-be devotees, was that Orange Juice’s catalogue had never been properly reissued, aside from a slipshod collection of singles here and there, and certainly never in any definitive form. But, finally, one no longer has to hope to come across a tattered copy of Rip It Up among the stacks at a second-hand record shop.

Coals To Newcastle – an exhaustive and potentially exhausting seven-disc box set from Domino – collects Orange Juice’s entire output (along with B-sides and outtakes) and includes their BBC sessions and a DVD of performances on The Old Grey Whistle Test and a concert film, Dada With (The) Juice.

Certainly, Coals To Newcastle is not appropriate as a mere introduction to Orange Juice. Indeed, their entire catalogue presented in such close proximity can feel miring at first, a bit like being disorientated in a hedge maze with no point of reference or hope of escape. And, like eating the proverbial elephant, it’s a bit difficult to know where to start with this collection.

The logical decision would be to start with Disc 1 and work your way through, but this requires two discs of listening – the seminal, self-released stuff, and the first proper album, You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever – before arrival at the real gem of the collection.

Indie street-credibility be damned, Rip It Up (the group’s one foray into the Top 40, peaking at Number 3 in February of 1983) is Orange Juice’s finest moment, and its funky, soulful, skewed and disjointed angularity has never sounded better than it does here. That album’s outstanding single – also called Rip It Up – gives the listener all the bearings needed to make sense of the entire catalogue. Indeed, Rip It Up is the sounding board, the benchmark against which the rest of Orange Juice’s must be measured.

It all stacks up quite well. The original lineup disintegrated after You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, and the result was a rotating cast of characters, including, from then on, Zimbabwe-by-way-of-Glasgow drummer Zeke Manyika. Certainly, Orange Juice could be forgiven for succumbing to lack of direction. And while each album represents a progression in the band’s evolution, Orange Juice – when viewed as a whole – demonstrate a surprising level of consistency, perhaps due to Collins’ stalwart and instantly recognisable presence behind the microphone.

The first disc, The Glasgow School, collects Postcard releases and the unreleased first album Ostrich Churchyard. As such, it comes across as a scattershot collection of well-written and nicely executed one-offs. Here, Orange Juice sound hungry and desperate, thrashing with the kind of frantically strummed, frenetic energy that is so endearing when its well-earned, and so off-putting when it’s faked. Indie bands have been replicating this sound for decades to mixed effect. From this ramshackle collection, Falling And Laughing and (To Put It In A) Nutshell encompass all the manic energy and sadsack sincerity Orange Juice are capable of, the latter featuring warmly affecting vocal harmonies behind Collins’ warbling croon.

You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever revisits both of the tracks mentioned above with a bit more polish. The album encapsulates, perhaps better than any other from its era, the post-punk sound. It’s all there: the alternately staccato-stabbing and chorus-drenched guitars, the funky bass-and-drum interplay, the shifting and unsettled line between crooning affection and growling angst. The album is rounded out by the stunning Untitled Melody (on which Collins muses: “You’re so transparent, I can guess without question. You need something or other to cover your expression”) and a daring cover of Al Green’s L.O.V.E. (Love).

Rip It Up introduces Zeke Manyika’s influence from the outset, sounding overwhelmed by funk and the alarming introduction of space-age synthesisers and Motown-tinged saxophones. Throughout the album, the listener gets the impression that the band really intends to “rip it up and start again,” recreating themselves as a formidable answer to The Clash, who, by this point were dabbling in similar sounds, though it’s questionable whether they ever considered themselves as such. A Million Pleading Faces mixes funky horn stabs with big, tribal-sounding gang vocals; Mud In Your Eye slows things down to a smoky Detroit crawl; and Louise Louise (itself a remnant from Ostrich Churchyard) deserves a place alongside The Replacements‘ Kiss Me On The Buss on any indie-rock mix tape of quirky love songs.

Texas Fever – a mini LP that found the band tending toward a more rock ‘n’ roll direction – was recorded among creative tensions that eventually caused the band to dissolve again. Still, the somewhat harder sound suited them well, and Texas Fever produced such memorable funk-rock tunes as Bridge and Punch Drunk, as well as the jarringly schizophrenic barnburner, The Day I Went Down To Texas (which features Collins’ exclaiming, “Guess I’m a lucky son of a gun!”).

Final studio album, The Orange Juice, found the band falling apart, largely reduced to Collins and Manyika. Still, despite the turmoil through which it was created, the group’s swan song features some fine moments. What Presence?! certainly fits among Orange Juice’s best work, opening with a guitar squall that resolves into twangy baritone surf-riffing. Collins sounds genuinely disaffected as he complains, “I’m holding back the tears, cos it’s screaming in my ears”. Overall, this final album is a fitting end to the Orange Juice story. In 1985, Collins announced mid-performance at a gig at the Brixton Academy that after the show, Orange Juice was done.

Edwyn Collins has gone on to release some excellent solo material, including his most recent, Losing Sleep, which will certainly number among the most memorable albums of 2010. His days in Orange Juice, though, helped to establish a new arm of the rock archetype, and presented a convincing answer to punk rock’s blistering noise and overhyped machismo. Coals To Newcastle catalogues it all – the essential and the non-essential, the classic and the understandably overlooked – in loving detail, and as such, it belongs on any collector’s shelf, and it stands to be remembered as one of 2010’s finest box set releases.

The Orange Juice box set, Coals To Newcastle, is out now through Domino.

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