Growing Up Is Hard to Do

With its second album, Oranger leaves its playful past behind

"I feel like I'm in sixth grade," says Mike Drake, the chief songwriter for psychedelic Wunderkinder Oranger. He is sitting to one side of a sea of glad-handers at a music industry meet 'n' greet, where the band has gathered with a crowd of local musicians to network and trade music-biz war stories. Despite Oranger's three-year stint as a purveyor of lighthearted, high-energy pop, Drake doesn't want to be 12 years old again. Instead, he wants to be older, wiser, and out of the spotlight.

When the band's members first started attending mixers like these, it was important to get out and mingle, make the scene, and be known. Since then a lot has changed, and the group is now more concerned with growing its music than its name. Still, as we all know, growing up can really suck. With The Quiet Vibration Land, the band's second full-length album, Oranger has squeezed all the pain and awkwardness of getting older into 14 catchy songs. The album may also be the definitive word on a San Francisco music scene going through its own growing pains.

When Oranger first hit the scene in 1997, it was enough just to have a sense of humor. At that time, the group's wacky tales of its own musical history -- first reported through a fictitious discography that chronicled such imagined Oranger albums as The Invisible Chocolate Glove, Death Chicken vs. Laser Mouse, and Behold, Mercury!, charting the band's purported rise through the hippie, funk, and prog-rock genres -- provided a colorful back story both on- and offstage.

Oranger: Colorful cutups get melancholy, too.
Peter Ellenby
Oranger: Colorful cutups get melancholy, too.


Saturday, Feb. 17, at 10 p.m. Aaron Nudelman opens. Tickets are $5; call 282-3325.

Sample of Oranger's "Stoney Curtis in Reverse," from the CD The Quiet Vibration Land. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

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El Rio, 3158 Mission (at Cesar Chavez), S.F.

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Drake formed Oranger with Matt Harris while the two were sidemen in Antioch's pop-punk quartet Overwhelming Colorfast. Prior to their exodus from Colorfast, Drake and Harris had been workshopping Oranger's first tunes. The pair recruited drummer Jim Lindsay, a longtime friend of Harris', and bassist Chad Dyer. Dyer left after six months, and the group remained a trio until recently, when keyboardist Patrick Main (who also plays with such local acts as Snowmen, Jolly, and the Fades) joined full time.

When the new band took to playing live, its stage demeanor carried on in the same good-time, goofy spirit as its discography. The group blazed through smart sets, performing a sendup of the Monkees' "Porpoise Song" and Stereolab covers while writing cheeky tunes like the Beach Boys tribute "Mike Love, Not War." By the time its debut album, Doorway to Norway, was released in late 1998 (on the group's own Pray for Mojo Records), Oranger seemed to have solidified a place for itself in the good vibrations rock 'n' roll scene. The band's hooky, fuzz-heavy tunes and raucous stage shows were just plain good fun -- growing up be damned.

That all changed with The Quiet Vibration Land.

On the surface, the band's new album is loaded with "do-do-do" choruses, sugary hooks, and dreamy melodies. But behind every sanguine, singsong moment on Vibration Land there's a story of failed love, foundering lives of friends, or abject misery. You don't have to dig very deep to see those good vibes go bad.

"Heaven is a dream that's never what it seems to be in the end/ You have all these things you want to say to all your vanishing friends," Drake sings on "Falling Stars." Those lines are, perhaps, the emotional nadir of Vibration Land, and they're a long way from such Doorwaytracks as "Donald, You're Freaking Out" and "This Snake Will Kill You," songs Drake says are kind of silly in retrospect. "I started to realize people were listening to the words," Drake explains. "If you're going to say something it might as well be meaningful, at least to you."

Even on tracks where the music skips merrily along, such as "Suddenly Upsidedown," the songs' jaunty measures are tempered by a narrator taking his cue from John Lennon lamenting "Yesterday." On "Collapsed in the Superdome," the velvety puff of a Wurlitzer breathes in and out like a bellows, filling the song with lightness before sucking the life out of it. Although Drake says the new lyrics are no reflection of his own life, many of them focus on love gone wrong. "Anytime you write a story, you put yourself in it," Drake says, at the same time explaining how the songs were "culled from a year's worth of listening to my friends mope about stuff." But that's an oversimplification of what's at the heart of Vibration Land. "Song by song, it does deal with relationships, but overall it's more than that, I think," Drake says.

Perhaps not altogether consciously Oranger has recorded the story of a band -- and a city -- moving in new directions, which can be difficult enough. Drake didn't set out to document the faltering state of artistic affairs in San Francisco -- the skyrocketing rents, club closings, and disappearing rehearsal spaces, a reality that hit close to home when Oranger was evicted from its studio/practice space at Downtown Rehearsal as it was putting the finishing touches on Vibration Land. Nonetheless, the band seems to have swallowed everything that has happened and etched it onto the grooves of the record. "It was a weird year in San Francisco," Drake says of the period surrounding the making of the album, which began in 1999. "San Francisco has changed," he adds, "not just physically, but spiritually."

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