Album Reviews

Orphans & Vandals – I Am Alive And You Are Dead

(Fourth Floor) UK release date: 27 April 2009

Apparently leaving pensioners messages about deflowering their grand-daughters is not the only thing to get you chucked off radio these days. Orphans & Vandals managed it on the strength of their lyrics which managed to offend enough people to get a banning from BBC 6 Music.

That’s 6 Music’s problem though, because ultimately they will live to regret this decision in the coming months. Orphans & Vandals might just be the most exciting band of the year. You might well disagree, but then the band would have a point with their album title – you are dead.

Orphans & Vandals was created by Al Joshua and his bass playing sidekick Raven. Having recruited a phenomenally talented band (all girls and all multi-instrumentalists) they set to work building songs centred on the poetic meanderings of Joshua. Despite his claims to the contrary, Joshua’s role in the band is very much one of a poet rather than singer. There are occasional hints of vocalising in his style but for the most part, he’s bordering on spoken word, a kind of British Lou Reed.

Not that this matters a jot, because the musical landscapes that his words populate are beautiful and complement him perfectly – he fits right in. In amongst the harmoniums, accordions, glockenspiels, bowed saws and endlessly repeated guitar motifs, Joshua’s lyrics about disaffection, love, sex and death find themselves in a strange murky world that nonetheless seems strangely welcoming.

And what a world it is. Split between London and Paris (the city Joshua relocated to in order to experience more of life), the band explores romance and grime in equal measure. At times these songs feel like an ill advised drunken fumble on a mattress you’ve found in a skip.

The centrepiece and spiritual heart of this record can be found in the simply phenomenal Mysterious Skin, a 10 minute extravaganza that sends shivers through the listener. A tale of love lost, death and the endless pursuit of happiness set to a repeated melody half inched from The Hothouse Flowers song Don’t Go might not sound like the basis for the best song you’ll hear this year, but be prepared to be shocked on just about every level.

Swelling and moving with emotional rushes like Velvet Underground‘s Heroin or Sister Ray, it pushes and pulls through an emotional rollercoaster of a tune. The line “when I was 14 years old I slept with a boy who was 21” grabs your attention early on and from here Joshua plays eloquently with the idea of sexual ambiguity in a way that is as forthright as it is slippery.

Its tone is similar to that of Elton Motello‘s Jetboy Jetgirl but far more erudite. “I took a girl/I took a boy back the night before last.” The protagonist of the song flips back and forth between the precise gender of his love before stating, “he came all over me”. Orphans & Vandals challenge the expectations and prejudices that reside within listener, if there are any. Either way, it’s not often you hear about ejaculation on such a beautifully orchestrated and narrated song. It’s entirely captivating and unflinching in its imagery and bravery and ultimately, it heralds an important voice in new British music.

Elsewhere a dirty patchwork London landscape is built up through various references to train stations (so many are mentioned you half expect the album to finish with a cry of “Mornington Crescent”), murders on night buses, and a longing to get away from it all to a cottage by the sea – as in the epic Christopher.

Joshua is like an urban version of Captain Cat throughout the album, switching from dreamlike state to wide-eyed reality with giddy regularity, but behind it all his band keep things from going of the rails. Each composition building in a linear fashion, neatly sidestepping the need for verses and choruses, and allowing the stories and profanities to speak for themselves.

It’s a dirty world out there, but it is one worth exploring with Al Joshua guiding you though it all. Don’t be surprised to find this magnificent record itself amongst 2009’s best.

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