Fans of the beloved ‘80s UK group have their faith rewarded, not only via an anthology and reissue but also with an out-of-the-blue new album.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Originally formed by singer/guitarist Martin Bramah and keyboardist Una Baines, both ex-members of the Fall, the Blue Orchids released one album called The Greatest Hit in 1982, as well as singles and an EP, before disbanding. (A short-lived reunion in the early ‘aughts produced a handful of albums now out of print.) Given that the pair were Fall members for that band’s debut album Live at the Witch Trials and Bramah’s subsequent rejoining for Extricate ten years later, the Orchids could have easily remained a footnote in the history of one of rock’s most unique bands.
Bramah’s not going to let it go down that way, however. Brand new album, The Once and Future Thing (Tiny Global) picks up where the band left off 30+ years ago with “Good Day to Live,” a garage rocking pop song heavy on burbling organ and Branah’s gritty croon. The Orchids’ strength lay in combining the abrasive groove of postpunk with the trippy drive of mid-60s psychedelia, and that aesthetic stays true here. Witness the way Bramah’s voice works against the melody of “Motorway,” or the ranting and raving over the fractured party rock of “August Rebels” and “Iron Tree.” The band leans more towards straight psych elsewhere, as on “Road to Perilous” and the surprisingly sweet-tuned “Feather From the Sun.” Remember in the 80s when industry mags and MTV used to talk about “modern rock?” The Once and Future Thing is what they meant.
Collecting the band’s early material on vinyl for the first time since it was issued, Awefull gathers up the Orchids’ pre-LP singles and the Agents of Change EP. The droning postpunk of “Work,” “Agents of Change” and “The House That Faded Out” reveal the influence of the musicians’ former employer, with Baines’ organ as main support to Bramah’s ranting and a more even-keeled take on the Fall’s trademark mania. The music takes on a subdued, almost wistful tone on “Conscience,” a ballad (!) written and recorded after a stint backing Nico. “Release” and “The Long Night Out” up the tempo but follow suit, showing a new dimension to the Orchids’ quirky vision. Demos of later songs “The Unknown” and “Sleepy Town” (on which Bramah does a straight-up imitation of Lou Reed) round out Awefull.
In between Orchids reunions and dalliances with other bands, Bramah produced his first solo album The Battle of Twisted Heel in 2008, originally sold only by mailorder. Eschewing the band’s style, Bramah instead goes for a folky, mostly acoustic vibe, not unlike contemporaries the Waterboys or the Lilac Time. It’s a surprising detour, but a successful one. Without having to compete with the Orchids’ driving rock, Bramah’s voice takes on a conversational tone, and he proves himself quite adept at writing coffeehouse tunes like “Lucybel,” “Stone Tumbling Stream” and “I-Super Real” that strike a balance between universality and introspection. Bramah goes electric for the grungy “Black Comic Book” and the ethereal “Strangely Lucid” for added spice, covering the Dave Van Ronk standard “Green Rocky Road” in the bargain. Several of these songs resurfaced in the repertoire of his next project Factory Star.
These releases prove Bramah and the Blue Orchids worth the effort on their own merits, not just as a footnote on a more famous band’s timeline.
(Below: check out some choice clips from Bramah and the band, both recently and in their ’80s heyday.)