“Sometimes, the best of things come from the most unlikely of places. Who would have thought a wellspring of world-class pop-rock would gush forth from a ho-hum city in the Midwestern U.S., not exactly renowned for its musical output?”
So begins the biography of The Orange Opera, a band from Fort Wayne, Indiana. And sure enough, when you hear their charming, articulate, and spot-on indie pop you might be surprised to learn that they hail from a city you probably couldn’t locate on a map. I’m not even confident I could locate the state of Indiana on a map. (I apologize in advance to anybody reading this review from Indiana for my geographical ignorance. I’m sure it’s a lovely place.) At any rate, The Orange Opera started off humbly enough. It began as a stage name for songwriter Kevin Hambrick (vocals, piano, guitar) who performed his original songs accompanied by an upright bassist. Everything kicked into gear in 2002 when Hambrick started jamming with Kevin Hockaday (drums) and Bryan Brubaker (electric bass) and the band had its first gig as a three-piece just a week later. Shortly after their first gig, the band swelled into a four-piece with the addition of lead guitar. The Orange Opera has remained a quartet ever since, although they ran through three guitarists before finally arriving at Zach Smith, who joined the group in 2009.
The Orange Opera has earned a sizable following in their eight years of existence, embarking on several tours and performing alongside high profile indie acts such as The Teeth and Dr. Dog. In 2007 they were awarded 1st place in Whatzup Magazine’s Battle of the Bands. Nevertheless, they’ve yet to abandon their hometown and the majority of their performances are in or around Fort Wayne. “Here’s the exception that proves the rule,” the biography continues. “Great music can emerge from the most humble of locales.” And it’s true without a doubt. Great music can indeed emerge from the most humble of locales and The Orange Opera is a prime example.
But let’s back up a second and ask a very pertinent question. Who cares? It’s not as if some Grand Guru of All-That-Is-Hip sat upon his mighty throne one day and decreed that every cool band has to be from Brooklyn. As for humble beginnings, isn’t that why indie music was created in the first place? To be a rock star you need to be beautiful, well connected, and willing to sacrifice artistic integrity in order to appeal to the mainstream. To be an indie star, you simply have to make good music. Right? The problem is, in rejecting the mainstream, indie embraces the obscure. I fully support the changes the music industry has undergone in recent years which have enabled small bands to build enormous grassroots followings without the aide of a major label but the “you should like this band because they recorded their entire album in their basement through an internal microphone using only a broken ukulele and a Casio keyboard” philosophy is every bit as disgusting to me as, “you should like this band because they’re on MTV.”
That’s why I was somewhat skeptical when I first read The Orange Opera’s biography which crafts a story out of their geographical obscurity. That’s why you should be somewhat skeptical of this review which, albeit begrudgingly, is doing the same thing. It’s almost too easy. In addition to being from Indiana, these guys met at a fucking shoe store. (I didn’t mention that in the first paragraph because I was saving that tasty bit of information for this precise moment.) And yes, their two most recent albums, Ant Muscle and Year of the Beard, were recorded in a basement, albeit mastered by former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer. But that’s not why you should love this band. You should love them because they make amazing music that will catch your ear as soon as you hear it and after just a few listens, may very well find its way into your heart.
A-Side “Ruby” is a prime example. The song begins with a playful 6/8 piano riff that’s later supported by bass, drums, and tastefully sparse electric guitar. Hambrik’s singing meshes perfectly with the music, his phrasing implying a call and response between instrumental and vocal passages. The lyrical motif of beginning each phrase by addressing “Ruby” is a great hook, and gives the listener the satisfaction of being able to (almost) sing along on the first listen. The chorus shifts (so gracefully you barely notice it) to a 4/4 feel and a completely different tempo, which gives it a heavier pulse. However the shimmering and spot-on vocal harmonies in the background keep the music from getting too dreary and hold everything afloat. The guitar interlude after the second chorus is a nice touch. It’s charmingly out of tune and provides a simple but clear melody that in my mind evokes an amusement park carousel. It’s especially perfecting considering the lyrical content. “Ruby, don’t you wanna play? It’s been so long, you’re down and out, today’s your day. Altogether the song has a very, for lack of a more suitable adjective, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band vibe, which is pretty high praise in my book. And if that’s not good enough, it gets significantly more adorable once you learn the story behind it. I realize that I may sound a little hypocritical after my critique of the whole humble beginnings appeal, but this isn’t a biographical trick as it pertains directly to the music. “Ruby” isn’t a song about a girl as I thought it was and as you’re probably thinking it is, but rather about Hambrick’s now deceased guinea pig. “I just pictured a day in her life when she was getting older and staying in her pigloo a lot…“ he explains. There are a million and one songs about girls and probably only a handful about guinea pigs, so in my mind that makes this one just a little more special.
B-Side “Fool For The Game” is significantly sparser, slower, and dreamier but it retains the same interesting hooks, impeccable pop sensibility, and deceptive complexity that “Ruby” and, more accurately, all of Hambrick’s songs seem to share. Lacking bass and drums and supported only by minimal guitar, “Fool For The Game” is by default a vocal feature which gives The Orange Opera’s vocal prowess time to shine. Here the peppy 60’s style “shoo-wop” is at odds with dismal lyrics they echo, “What seemed so right forever is slowly fading far away.” The song never really picks up but at its biggest moments, when the vocal harmonies swell and the vibrato guitar seem to evoke “Aloha Oe,” it approaches a drugged-out and uncannily happy tranquility. The result is cleverly ironic and complicates the message of the refrain, “it’s gonna feel so good.”
For those of you from Fort Wayne, you should feel lucky to have such a phenomenal band in your midst. They’re regular performers, so take advantage of the opportunity to see them play. Also, you can thank them for putting your city on my map. I’ve currently got the Fort Wayne Wikipedia article open in another window and see that it’s a charming little city of roughly 250,000 in the north-eastern corner of the state and has won the All-America city award in 1982, 1998, and 2009. For the rest of you out there, The Orange Opera plans to embark on more tours in the future so stay tuned. In the meantime, keep an eye out in the coming weeks, as we’ll be adding their albums to our modest online store.
Fool For The Game
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem098/02 Fool For The Game.mp3