Orange Juice
Coals to Newcastle

Amongst the many things to be thankful for this week, the one that sticks out the most to me is the release of Coals to Newcastle, a boxset collecting the entirety of the recordings made by Orange Juice, the Scottish band whose output in the early ’80s, while frequently and reverentially cited as an influence, has languished mostly out-of-print for the past couple of decades. Led by Edwyn Collins, best known, at least Stateside, as a solo artist for his 1994 hit, “A Girl Like You,” the group’s mix of punkish verve, ramshackle hooks and gaunt soul accents was archetypal indie pop—even after the band left the Postcard label for Polydor—and sounds just as vivacious these days, despite so many newbies trying to cop a similar aesthetic. But with their records hard to come by and only a 2005 compilation of their early work, The Glasgow School, more readily available, Orange Juice has never had its praises sung as widely as they deserve to be.

Comprised of six CDs, a DVD and a handsome book-like set of liner notes, Coals to Newcastle is a lot to take in as a whole, especially with several versions of most songs; there are four versions of “What Presence?!” alone. But all the outtakes only serve to show Orange Juice’s talents to be completely innate, the off-the-cuff resonance of their earliest material proving to be purely organic instead of studied. For example, “Moscow Olympics,” an alternate version of “Moscow” that was a B-side to that song’s original Postcard 7-inch, sounds like it was being played at the bottom of some well, but rings with the perfect amount of jangle and echo.

Of course, one of the more compelling aspects of this set, is its documentation of the evolution the band took over the course of less than five years of recording. The first disc, a reprisal of The Glasgow School collection of the band’s Postcard years, shows the band at its most roughshod, but also contains many of Orange Juice’s watershed moments. “Blue Boy” is an invigorated romp full of VU riffs and Collins distinct warble, while “Louise Louise” is a coy take on a crooning ballad. The latter is from the group’s first full-length attempt, the scrapped Ostrich Churchyard, the entirety of which is included. Many of the record’s songs would be later re-recorded on OJ’s albums for Polydor. Also included here are a handful of live tracks, originally released as a cassette bonus to the “Rip It Up” single, that are equally riveting, despite not the greatest of sound quality.

With the release of You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, the band’s proper full-length debut that comprises the majority of the second disc, Orange Juice had begun refining their sound, even as it encompassed the post-punk, New Romantic and new wave movements of the time. The difference is palpable in the reworking of “Falling and Laughing,” originally their first single for Postcard. Here the band sounds less frail, the keys and Collins’ vocals filling out more of the space around guitarist James Kirk’s lean guitar lines. The added hues suit them, and the band manages the rare feat of retaining their loose ends while indulging in some higher production values. “Intuition Told Me, Pt. 2,” another Ostrich Churchyard reworking, retains its spirited countenance, with its jagged lines further punctuated and Collins coming off particularly lordly singing lines like, “Tell me when the fun begins,” and rhyming words like “limbo” and “akimbo.” If one wanted to pinpoint Orange Juice’s peak, this is definitely it, with “Felicity” and “You Old Eccentric” further proof.

“Two Hearts Together,” a single released later in the year, shows the direction that Orange Juice would take with the introduction of drummer Zeke Manyika. The band began exploring Calypso, reggae and other styles foreign to their Scottish upbringing. That influence is obvious from the lead-off title track of Rip It Up, on which bleating synths and a reggae riff (played by Kirk’s replacement, Malcolm Ross) meld with the band’s soul leanings. While the band was beginning to shed some of their charm for this new fascination, the track (and the album) is not without its selling points. “I Can’t Help Myself,” also released as a single, fuses lite funk with effervescent pop and Collins’ clever line, “Just like the Four Tops, I can’t help myself.” Manyika’s Zimbabwean chants on the hackneyed “Hokoyo” are further evidence of the band’s new multi-culti outlook—as well as the beginning of the end.

By 1984, most of the band jumped ship, leaving Collins and Manyika. The pair made the last Orange Juice records, Texas Fever and The Orange Juice, which make up discs four and five, respectively, fleshed out by outtakes and rarities. Surprisingly, though, the two records didn’t delve into worldly sounds like one might expect. Instead, the two tow the many lines that Orange Juice had always fancied. The self-titled album’s single “Lean Period” hearkens to General Public and Fun Boy Three, but so did much of the past work, and the irascible “I Guess I’m a Little Too Sensitive” is slick both in sound and in referencing the band’s persona, but all the better for it.

The final CD collects the recordings Orange Juice did with the BBC over the years, including two Peel Sessions. The most interesting among these cuts is “Blokes on 45,” a medley of “Falling and Laughing,” "Moscow," “Lovesick,” “Blue Boy,” “Breakfast Time,” “Simply Thrilled Honey” and “Poor Old Soul” played live like a sort of dance remix. There’s also a wonderfully harried run through “Felicity” and a take of “Turn Away” that shows the off-kilter charm Collins had never dissipated.

While there’s certainly some filler on Coals to Newcastle, it’s a surprisingly small amount, especially considering the band was signed to a major that no doubt wanted to force them into one of the new wave molds of the time to sell records. But neither over-production nor even the inclusion of horns could damper the best Orange Juice song. However, just saying so on paper doesn’t convey the intangibles of the music the band created. There’s something at once frenetic and charming about the majority of this material, something that slyly seduces without force. One can never have too much of a good thing, and with Orange Juice, that’s doubly so.
Stephen Slaybaugh