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Blue Orchids - A Darker Bloom – The Blue Orchids Collection

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Artist: Blue Orchids

Album: A Darker Bloom – The Blue Orchids Collection

Label: Cherry Red

Review date: Nov. 7, 2008

Post-punk has been many things, but rarely beautiful. The Blue Orchids, out of Manchester, turned its thrift shop formula of damaged guitars, stuttering rhythms, badly-tuned keyboards and corrosive visions into something as rare and unlikely and delicately gorgeous as the band’s name-sake. A Darker Bloom traces the band’s development from its first abrasive singles, through its stunning only full-length The Greatest Hit and its last original line-up EP Agents of Change. There are also some songs from later iterations of the band, reformed in 1985 and 1991.

The Blue Orchids came together in Manchester in 1979, as two founding members of the Fall – guitarist Martin Bramah and keyboardist Una Baines – split off shortly after Live at the Witch Trials. (They were later joined by bassist Tony Friel, who has the distinction of being the first person ever fired from the Fall.) From the first, the Orchids aimed for a more melodic, flowing sound than the Fall, more along the lines of the Velvet Underground.

The debut single “Disney Boys” backed with “The Flood” out in 1980, had a frantic, chaotic, unmistakably post-punk clatter to it, but it already moved towards the reverb’d, fluidity of the Blue Orchids’ sound. You can hear, even in the first songs, that Bramah is not content with the talky, growled vocal cadences of the old band. With his untrained voice he nonetheless attempted real singing, his long sustained notes turning sour at the ends, his melodies fractured and groaning. Likewise Baines may have played a cheap keyboard, like hundreds of others in the era, but she aimed for flowing melodies and atmospherics rather than percussive stabs and blurts.

The second single, “Work” backed with “The House that Faded Out” in February 1981, was the one that got John Peel’s attention. It represented another big jump in quality, even the chant-shouted “Work” fraught with spooky, mellifluous keyboards. “The House that Faded Out” pits a rigid march of guitars, against sing-songy, ricky-ticky organs, Bramah’s voice hard and robotic in the verse, but flowering in the chorus.

Later that year, in August 1981, the Blue Orchids released The Greatest Hit, their only proper album. Here the band’s luminous, psychedelic sound comes to full fruition. Bramah’s voice is surer and more melodically capable, Baines’ keyboards enveloping and iridescent. On “Sun Connection” the band begins to play with ghostly back-up singing, a floating counterpart to Bramah’s effortful main melodic line. It is immediately richer and stranger and more beautiful than anything to this point.

There’s not really a bad song anywhere on The Greatest Hit, but a few of them stand out – “Sun Connection,” “Low Profile” “A Year with No Head” and especially “Dumb Magician.” Here cascades of organ spill over rackety, martial drums, at a pace that is faster, more frantic, but still layered with washes of tranquil sound. The lyrics are full of vivid images, yet also philosophical, around a central “dumb magician” figure who “sits behind the scenes / strings attached to all things.” It’s a pessimistic view of god and man and free will, though not at all overwritten, but it somehow coalesces in joy, as Bramah sings, “The only way out is up / The only way out is up.”

After The Greatest Hit, Blue Orchids did a stint as Nico’s touring band and began to fray as a cohesive band. Bramah and Baines made one more record together, the EP Agents of Change, which Bramah considers his best work. All four songs from this disc are included on A Darker Bloom, and listening to them immediately after The Greatest Hit, you can help seeing a band slipping from strangeness into conventionality. There is nothing wrong with “Agents of Change” but it is far more conventionally sung and played and arranged than the earlier work. The organ, which had been a kind of dream-like scrim through which melodies could be viewed dimly, has slipped into a supporting role. The drums pound away, but underneath the guitars and bass and main vocal. It’s like someone has filtered all the weird visionary qualities of Blue Orchids through a rock lens.

Dark Bloom closes with tracks from two Blue Orchids re-formations, both without Baines, one in 1985 and one in 1991. (There is, apparently, another Blue Orchids album in the works even now.) These continue the trend away from the band’s unique, rawly beautiful sound, and towards competence and conventionality. But it’s the early work, the singles and the first full-length, that are radiant with the Blue Orchid’s trademark wavery energy. If you’ve got the singles and The Greatest Hit, you may not need this compilation. But if you’re just getting around to the Blue Orchids, this is an excellent entry point.

By Jennifer Kelly

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