Against all the odds, Shaun Ryder’s post-Happy Mondays outfit are still finding ways to sound like the best party band around
When Black Grape released their debut album It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah in 1995, it seemed unlikely that Shaun Ryder’s post-Happy Mondays band would still be a going concern over 30 years later. Let’s face it, there weren’t that many people back then who’d assume Ryder would even still be alive in 2024.
Yet not only has Shaun William Ryder is still alive and well, despite his prodigious habits back in the ’90s, he’s also undergone an unlikely reinvention as a light entertainment icon, thanks to shows like I’m A Celebrity and Gogglebox. Both the Happy Mondays and Black Grape, having been on hiatus for some years, are now up and running again, and Orange Head is the follow up to Black Grape’s 2017 album Pop Voodoo.
The songs gathered together on Orange Head are a far cry from the party anthems on their debut. This probably isn’t that surprising, as only Ryder and former Ruthless Rap Assassin Kermit survive from those days, but it’s still noticeable how effortlessly Orange Head seems to bounce around, stylistically. Whether it be the dirty funk of Milk, the Peter Gunn aping riff of Self Harm or the surprising turn into Cuban music on Button Eyes, this is an album that always keeps you guessing as to what’s coming next.
What’s not changed of course is Ryder’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery – if anyone could master the art of sounding like a man staggering round a shopping centre shouting a lot of random rhymes, it’s Shaun Ryder. He is, after all, possibly the only person who could get away with a chorus of “BAD DRIVER! MUFF DIVER!” on the brilliantly brassy Pimp Wars, while there’s something impossibly endearing about him rhyming “metaverse” and “Gucci purse” on Self Harm.
Of course, Ryder is very much self-aware when it comes to his vocal limitations, which makes this a much more charming listen than it otherwise would be. The repeated refrain on Panda of “we’re getting old… like The Rolling Stones… we’re old” is genuinely funny, while Button Eyes sees him musing how “I find it funny that I can’t sing”. Kermit still makes for the perfect foil for him, his more conventional delivery blending well with Ryder’s random stream of consciousness rants.
There’s also a surprising dark edge to much of Orange Head. The epic seven minute long In The Ground, complete with a Ennio Morricone-style mournful harmonica, looks at Ryder’s strained relationship with his late brother Paul (“You were my brother, but now you are dead, you didn’t like me”). It doesn’t grab the attention as much as some of the more upbeat tracks on the record, but it makes an indelible, unsettling mark once you hear it.
Orange Head is an album that seems to defy the ageing process. It’s packed full of invention (the final track alone, Sex On The Beach, throws in spaghetti western sounds, dub reggae and the sound of barking dogs), while it’s hard not to feel exhausted just listening to the frantic pace of the breathless Milk. Against all the odds, Black Grape are still finding ways to sound like the best party band around.