Been waiting a long time for this record. A long time. Like 8 years long. And now Orchestraville’s Poison Berries is at last here.
Odds are you don’t know this band. You should. In the 90s, they released some amazing records that defined the avant-pop genre. The compositions of Chris Forbes on those early records remain a hallmark of creativity within – and beyond – the boundaries of song smith mastery. Their first couple records contain numerous gems that never received the attention they deserved.
For example, check out “Ersatz Love” from the eponymous Orchestraville (1998). Completely amazing:
These guys were so on their game in ‘98. And then they followed it up At night, it is particularly lovely. (2001). Too hard to pick a favorite track from that one, but if forced, it’ll have to be “Dog As A Catalyst”:
And now after years of no Orchestraville fix, Poison Berries is finally here. The verdict? Well, it would seem that Orchestraville have pulled a Mommyheads.
What does that mean? Well, to explain, we must discuss another seminal yet obscure band from the nineties with a sensibility that defied convention with creative aplomb. In the pantheon of avant-pop, The Mommyheads sit among the stars. Their record Acorn, which can’t even be purchased any longer, is a masterpiece and their follow ups hold their own, sparkling with the clever crafting of pop oddities. They then were signed to Geffen and released an eponymously titled record that eschewed the odd in favor of demonstrating proficiency within the genre as opposed to stretching the genre.
Poison Berries is akin to The Mommyheads big label debut. Forbes flexes his songcraft muscles here, writing songs with hooks that don’t push boundaries but instead sate the ears. There are the occasionally signature moments of guitar dissonance, with flat 5ths and chromatic clashes. But these are few and far between. Most songs are characterized by a maturity, a confidence in pop.
And, overwhelmingly, most of these songs seem wrapped up in a bittersweet plea. These songs are not shimmery. Nor are they sappy. They contain a melancholia, a resignation that fits in well with the title of the record itself. Beware the poison berry. “If yr feelin blue I learned a thing or two about making sorrow seem sublime” – a signature line from the record that characterizes the world weary tone that pervades the record. Forbes voice is weathered. It cracks, it croons, it yearns without being satisfied. Even on the sunnier tracks, the lyrics belie the poppy sheen. Now, there are a few tracks that branch out: “Thank You Mr. Washington” and “I Take It Back” provide balance to the levity of the other tunes. But, for the most part, Poison Berries is, well, a bit dark. In an elliptical way. Lyrics suggest and connote without ever being direct -- the twisted turn of a phrase against a surprise minor chord.
For example, consider “You Wanna Be Like That.”
With a head nodding classical guitar riff and a gorgeous trombone solo, the song is pretty as can be. Yet the lyrics hint at failure and loss, the inability to meet the expectations one sets for one’s self. The song also has what could be the best line of the record: “dishwashers in hell never see a clean plate.”
In a similar vein is “A Bird Without Wings.”
Again, there is this passive resignation in the song, a failed relationship about competing with one another, comparing one another, bringing one another down. “You picked me out and didn’t even know why.”
This is a mature record. The production elegant, layers of tasteful guitar, bass lines and drums that compliment rather than overwhelm, and keyboards that round out the sound. The songwriting is top notch; the band is in command. (Oh, and you can get it on limited edition vinyl too.)
So what is next for Orchestraville? Will we see Forbes muse return? And when? And in what form will it take this time?