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Orphans and Vandals

I Am Alive And You Are Dead (Fourth Floor)

By • May 14th, 2009 • Category: Album review

Hey! Look – times change; we change. We mature and our tastes mature. So maybe I was a little quick to dismiss Orphans and Vandals in an earlier review.

In my defence though I still maintain that ‘Terra Firma’ and ‘Christopher’ are better suited as album tracks and sit better within that context than as a double-A-sided single release. The former, for instance is over eight minutes of dramatic story telling, with vocalist Al Joshua’s half-sung, half-spoken delivery set against a dark and moody bass and viola foundation topped with violin lines. It’s the type of song that requires – and indeed merits – undisturbed listening time. ‘Christopher’ heavily features the musical saw layered over a harmonium base that gives this song a particularly stereo-typically French feel – just like you’d imagine hearing while sitting in a back street Parisian cafe. Well – like I’d imagine, anyway. The constant whine of the saw is initially irritating, but actually after several listens and once the listener has an image in their head, it does take on a fresh and more pleasing aspect. The addition of a harmonica to dance over the other instruments half way through the song lifts the atmosphere as well.

Together those two songs account for fourteen and a half minutes of the fifty-five offered on the album. So, yeah – they sit well surrounded by forty plus other minutes’ worth, but I would personally have chosen to substitute one of them with another from the album as a debut single. But then, the release did receive much critical acclaim so what do I know?

For me, the natural choice for release as a single would have been the album opener, ‘Strays.’ At just over six minutes in length, it is perfectly timed – any less and you’d feel cheated. A delicious discordant drone plays away in the background as violins and all sorts accompany the mono-toned vocals. Key changes form an integral part of this upbeat song that combines the bounce of Cockney Rebel’s ‘Mr Soft’ with a Roxy Music / Bryan Ferry (‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’) feel.

This is followed by ‘Mysterious Skin’ which builds from a simple guitar line into a dramatic tale combining spoken word with a string section. At ten and a half minutes in length, this certainly fits the billing of an ‘epic.’

‘Argyle Square’ follows the same formula, though the vocals are more sung than spoken and there is an even more orchestral feel at points. At eight and a half minutes though and following over ten minutes of the previous track it could be argued that there is too much similarity and the overall dramatic effect is diluted somewhat.

‘Liquor On Sunday’ sounds a little too much like an Irish Folk type dirge for me, and ‘Incognito,’ again features the ghostly whine of the musical saw, but this time the impact falls short compared to ‘Christopher.’ Happily, for me at least, those two account for only a combined total of seven minutes, before the tempo changes up again with ‘Metropes.’

This track (‘Metropes’) reminds me of very early James, around the time of their debut ‘Stripmine’ album, and rivals ‘Strays’ as the best track. Final track ‘Head On With Tears,’ is pleasant, bluesy and atmospheric with the feel of an old-time jazz-bar about it.

So for me, while there are a few tracks I would certainly skip over, there are also some that I would play over and over again. What I would say in defence of the album as a whole is that it is one of ‘those,’ (and Orphans And Vandals are also one of ‘those’ bands) that is quite likely to draw gasped comments of “who? / what?” when the time comes round for nominations for Ivor Novello or Brit Awards. (You think I’m kidding…?)

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