The Orchids composed dreary-voiced, indie pop dirges with
typical Scottish languor for Sarah Records from 1987 through 1995.
This three-disc retrospective anthology is akin to LTM's treatment for
Sarah labelmates The Field Mice, though thankfully LTM prudently chose to
retain the original cherubic artwork for these three releases. The
Orchids' long players (as opposed to their many singles) featured angelic
images, often with Gustav Dore-inspired illustrations laid out
imaginatively. The cover art was always striking and often stark (see
Lyceum and Unholy Soul for examples, and the earlier collection Epicurean
if you can find it). Vocalist James Hackett's singing ranges far from the
glories of angels, though it might be called angelic by some. It stands
somewhere between a loud whisper and a mumbling chorus boy's diffident
chirpings. It reminds me a little of Felt's Lawrence in its register but
without the regalia and confidence therein.
The strongest of the three discs happens to be the earliest, chronologically. Lyceum + Singles features the most memorable of The Orchids' songs, perhaps because it contains a variety of songs which depart from the band's anesthetized pop compositions. "Caveman " is playful and soaring, with guitar lines almost exploding and running headlong from the chorus; "Walter" channels a more ancient garage rock/'60s feel, though it does introduce saxophone for some added '80s wankiness; listening to "Apologies" will beg the question whether or no t your CD carousel decided to skip to The Clean retrospective in the next CD berth since it sounds identical to the Australian band both vocally and melodically (simply listen to the way Hackett enunciates the word "realize" before you tell me I'm wrong); "Yawn" begins with some aw kward incantation but then with utter brittleness rises to a balanced and meditative exploration on beauty. Though "Yawn" is an untypically long song for The Orchids. maintaining its ruminations for well over seven minutes, it is also their most successful statement on the album. On a different note, the most tragic song on Lyceum is "Blue Light," whose absolute fragility and frailty could itself break a weak and unwary listener into many tiny pieces of flesh. Hackett's desperately quivering vocals might even have the ability to shatter a stronger listener. Every worthwhile Orchids' song appears on Lyceum and it is the most integral of the three.
Unholy Soul + Singles is a more inconsistent album, peppered with hits and misses, often abutting one another. "Long Drawn Sunday Night" has a lovely and insinuating chorus: quiet but severe in its pronouncement. Yet the whole tone of that song is undercut by the subsequent "Peaches" and its full-on R+B emulation. The R&B female chorus sounds like something more appropriate to the coeval Terence Trent D'arby single. Presently, the lyrics of "Tropical Fishbowl" are quite topical and fitting, since it has been raining here for an entire week and when Hackett inquires, "Are you the girl, standing in the rain?," it applies ubiquitously. "Me and the Black and White Dream" moodily combines a thick and playful bass line wit h the typical jangly guitars of the band, while the recognizable "Something for the Longing" musically approaches the anthemic, only to contrast it with lyrically unambitious sentiments: "And we can walk for hours and hours." On second thought, walking for hours and hours might actually be ambitious for a band as morose as The Orchids. That could net a good six miles (9.66 kilometers).
Striving for the Lazy Perfection + Singles strives to be more affected than earlier works. The album starts off a little harder, rougher, and with a splash of violence, though soon lapses into more saccharine dance fusion which leaves you scratching your head instead of cutting a rug. That the word "hate" sneaks up a few times in the almost-growled lyrics of "Obsessi on No. 1" is an early indicator of this. The title track returns The Orchid s to their earlier sound, albeit laced over bubbly electronic percolations which indicate the band's unavoidable tug towards the contemporary dance scene (The Orchids were not the only indie pop band to suffer this hybrid: The Field Mice, Northern Picture Library, and others all fell victim to what could justifiably be called Primal Scream syndrome). "Searching" ends with an awkward homage to guitar gods, unsurprisingly unappeased by this corny solo (the song's coda) which sounds entirely out of place and loses its place as it trails off into the fade-out of the song. Unfortunate sampling plagues much of Striving. The tendency to inte rtwine a song with some found sound (usually an esoteric talking piece) is over-featured here, though it often just calls out an already faltering song as truly malignant. "A Living Ken and Barbie" is the prime exampl e. With the song, the band is possibly trying to make some type of ideological statement about vanity but the statement is carried by a jalopy of a vehicle and crashes early on. It doesn't get a whole lot better from there. "Thaumaturgy" is pleasant enough, but it cannot perform the miracles its title suggests. Instead, the song offers to throw a simple life vest to an album (and perhaps a band) which actually needs a lifeboat. Striving closes with the confusing blues jam "The Letter," a song which channels Tom Waits at the end. Somehow, ths inexplicable finale is inexplicably appropriate.