Back In The Nick Of Time

I’m not much of a one for reunions and reformations. Mostly they end up being embarrassing mistakes, tarnishing an otherwise faultless track record. Better by far to keep the history intact, to keep the mystery caged, as the esteemed John Carney would say.

Occasionally though, it works. Witness the strange and spectacular return of the original Velvet Underground line-up in the early ’90s, or the magical reunion of Robert Forster and the much-missed Grant McLennan as The Go-Betweens. And then there are The Orchids.

I have written at length about The Orchids in the past. Their track record is, to my mind, one of giddy artistic heights. Their string of albums and singles for the Sarah label in the late ’80s and early ’90s was matchless; each a perfect nugget of beautifully flawed Pop perfection. Few groups survived those times with such a faultless body of work, and yet The Orchids were never really given the exposure they deserved, for in those times the dingy Indie ghetto was a different place entirely and almost impossible to break out of unless you doffed your hat to the obvious Rock traditions. And actually, thinking about it, maybe not much has changed.

There are still those who will argue about whether The Orchids were helped or hindered by being on the Sarah label. It’s a moot point now of course, but it does make you realise how important a strong label identity can be. Strong identities tend to polarise opinions. They lead to love and hate, which is better than indifference of course. At the time though, even those who loved Sarah loathed it in an almost equal measure. For every Field Mice there was a Secret Shine. For every Orchids a Sweetest Ache. I still struggle to understand how anyone could genuinely like everything that Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes released. For I am sure that sometimes they were taking the piss, teasing and testing people’s patience and intelligence. I hope that was the case, at least.

But The Orchids; they were truly something special. And now, thirteen years after their last record, with the release of their Good To Be A Stranger set for the Spanish based Siesta label, they prove they are something special all over again.

I’ll admit I was nervous. As I said at the start, I have a natural mistrust for reformations. And I’d be lying if I said that I was delirious with joy the first time I played the album. But bear with me, for really there is a great point to be made here. For Good To Be A Stranger is not the return to a point in the past. Why would it be? Everyone is different now. Different needs and desires have emerged. A new maturity has settled, and the appeal drifts out with repeated plays, which is entirely as it should be. There are still instantly memorable refrains, but these are now backed up by more deftly subtle depths. It’s the difference between falling in lust at 17 and being in love at 40.

The Orchids know that growing up and getting older is about many things, not least of which is the retention of a sense of wonder at the world and a love of its details. That wonder is all over this set. It’s in the sunlight reflected in eyes, the wind in hair, the fading stars, the simple and sublime invincibility of holding hands.

There are echoes of pasts and presents throughout. There’s the Pale Fountains brass opening to ‘I Need You To Believe Me’ for instance, and then the line about believing in life on Mars. Back in the nick of time, indeed. Meanwhile, the brass returns later in the song and James Hackett sings softly about a need that is deep and strong and true. It all sounds almost painfully alive and breathtakingly honest and pure. And to my ears at least it’s all a far sight better than anything Michael Head has done in years.

Then there is ‘Last Thing’, as perfect a love song as you could hope to hear. Full of the strength and deep warmth of lasting relationships fuelled by that illusive mixture of magic and foundations built on time and shared experience. It is a perfect evocation of that sense of peace and love that is almost too momentous to describe. And is that a flute dancing through the mix like a firefly bursting in the summer night? Perfect.

Now I mentioned that The Go-Betweens were one of the few groups to have ever made an unqualified success of the reformation business, and it’s fitting that The Orchids have recorded ‘Magic In Here’ for the Grant McLennan tribute. For you know, there are beautiful, aching echoes of Grant threading through this whole album, not least of all on the gloriously gentle set closer ‘You Could Do Something To Me’ with it’s lines about word getting around, harmonious guitars caressing the night and magically drifting harmonica cutting to the heart of the matter. It is five and a half minutes of sitting in the dunes at daybreak, warmed from the embers of the night’s fire and eyelashes glistening with dew. Five and a half minutes of walking the coastal path, the waking lights of the town below blinking alive and casting off memories of lives spent miles apart but with the impossibly strong shared mementoes of adolescence binding you inexorably forever. Five and half minutes of standing in the foyer of the hotel, seeing only the ghosts of surreal pink walled moments, hearing the murmurs of long lost faces and feeling the imagined kiss of lips that taste of tears or Pernod or both. It’s all inside. It’s all mixed up and almost unbearably special and personal. We invest our memory with songs and our songs with memory. It’s ebb and flow, a two-way process that feeds itself. Nothing is real and everything is hyper-real as a result. There’s magic in here to be sure. That’s the effect of great Pop.

And Good To Be A Stranger is certainly great Pop; is an album that grows in stature with repeated plays; an album with a depth and maturity that rewards extended exposure and that sends out its tendrils of tender beatitude into the very deepest recesses of your heart. It’s one of the very finest albums of this or any year and it would be criminal to miss it. Don’t let our middle-age go to waste.

© 2007 Alistair Fitchett

The Orchids' Good To Be A Stranger is released on Siesta records on March 5th 2007. A London show takes place at The Luminaire on March 2nd.