Preternaturally Californian, songwriter/musician Allen Clapp is forever the boy with his summer transistor. But that doesn't mean his unfeigned pop arrangements are without those emotional markers that become more defined at a certain age and place, like remaining completely in love, or the departure of longtime friends from the circle to start their own families. Indie pop, with its easy predilection for both McGuinn's guitar and the lavender candy of France Gall, is more associative than people who don't like the genre care to admit. And it's this malleable, sincere OK, often soft aesthetic that has afforded Clapp a pretty perfect outlet for a variety of projects since the '90s, including his current band the Orange Peels and a 2002 solo album, Available Light, where he handled all of the instrumentation (and critics heard a less rocky Bread as well as a longing for Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy).
Circling the Sun is the Orange Peels' third full-length record, and it's
the best one yet. While their last two records were well received among
fans the big issue seems to be whether Square or the follow-up So Far is
your favorite the previous line on this Northern Californian band appears
to be: Approved West Coast pop with little deviation from the form. Circling
the Sun suggests that all the band needed to put itself over was some studio
luster to match the frequent coastal allusions and emotive planetary references.
Clapp's vocals, seemingly made for songs about secrets and trying to understand
what you feel, usually fall somewhere between Matthew Sweet and Ric Menck. Here
he meets the arrangements with no lo-fi in sight, sounding fuller than on previous
recordings which is exactly what the songs need.
The band has gone through some personnel changes (to put it lightly) since first
getting together. Clapp and his wife, bassist Jill Pries, are the only members
who have remained since the beginning. Ocean Blue Guitarist Oed Ronne is one
of the most solid additions his appearance must be due in part to some
friendly arrangement between bands, as Clapp mixed the Ocean Blue's most recent
record at his Mystery Lawn studio and helped with the songwriting as well. It
was a good bid on everyone's part. Ronne's versatile guitar work brings a dream-pop
airiness to "Tonight" and helps along the jaunt of "What's It Like, Mary Jo?" And
instead of one drummer, Circling the Sun has three: Pete Anderson (John
Vanderslice, Ocean Blue), Terrarium producer Bryan Hanna, and the Peels' original
drummer, Bob Vickers.
While there is no denying what a transformation Circling the Sun is for
the Orange Peels, maybe the bigger deal is that the band is as openhearted as
ever here, taking flight. "California Blue" reminds me of both the Springfields' "Sunflower" and
Harry Nilsson's version of "Everybody's Talkin'" admittedly not very Californian,
but they sound like it, and it's this same soft/light touch that delivers the
in Space" recasts the soft-rock references of Todd Rundgren and even the piano
of Epic Soundtracks, with an on-high chorus and a feeling plaint: "Take my faults,
my fears, my flaws/ 'Til I want these things no more."
The Orange Peels have always made the music they wanted to make without the head mess of scenes, yet still maintained a discography that reads like bedroom indie cred. If the dream is to be able to do this full-time, Circling the Sun just might help them realize it.