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The Orange Peels' "Square"; Edwyn Collins' "I'm Not Your Man."

By Michael Henningsen

JANUARY 26, 1998: 

Alibi Rating Scale:
!!!!!= Marsha
!!!!= Greg
!!!= Bobby
!!= Cindy
!= Alice

The Orange Peels Square (Minty Fresh)

In 1993, Allen Clapp recorded a charming DIY album, 100% Chance of Rain, which disappeared immediately for all but a few who saw in the Bay Area singer/songwriter hints of a new pop genius. Someone who calls a song "Why Sting Is Such An Idiot" writes lyrics that more than live up to the title and sets them to an infectious strum-pop gallop is obviously someone to pay attention to. Four years later, Allen's formed a band and released the best pop album of 1997.

On first blush, The Orange Peels recall the twinkly pop of the Three O'Clock, Game Theory, Sneetches or Apples in Stereo. They have the usual '60s influences; echoes of the Left Banke, Brian Wilson, Gary Zekley and, on the gorgeous bossa nova "On the Way To Somewhere," a mix of Dionne Warwick and the Zombies all waft through Allen's organ-and-acoustic-guitar-dominated songs.

But unlike some of his pop contemporaries, Allen never attempts Rutleization. He's strong enough both as a songwriter and as a singer (he has an appealingly forthright tenor, a refreshing change from the current lot of singers of uncertain voice) that the songs sound like The Orange Peels, not like four people attempting to channel Paul McCartney. Then there's the lyrics. Allen's unapologetic Christianity shows through in most of his songs. But before visions of early U2 or, even worse, Live, start going through your head, there's nary a bit of pontificating to be found here. It's more like grooving on the Universal Life Force, as in the giddy, handclap-driven "I Don't Mind the Rain" or "Love Coming Down." Other lyrics are open-ended--the brilliant and lovely "Something Strange Happens" or "Man and Superman" may just as easily be about new love affairs as about spiritual rebirth.

Square (what with Allen's geekboy look, complete with heavy black hornrims and Caesar haircut, I assume the titular reference is to the quality of being L7) also has the best cover of 1997: defiantly retro but somehow quite modern, yet seemingly casual and offhand as well. Just like the album. !!!!

Edwyn Collins I'm Not Following You (Setanta/Epic)

After "A Girl Like You" became the surprise hit of 1995, Edwyn Collins--formerly of the early-'80s supertwee Orange Juice--could have followed Everything But the Girl and other of his contemporaries down VH1's primrose path, playing increasingly dull music for former college DJs who remember when these artists were interesting.

He's chosen not to do that. Where the cover of his last album, Gorgeous George, featured a black and white photo of The Artist as Debonair Young Man, Collins here wears a loud polyester shirt and hipster-doofus shades, bearing a remarkable resemblance to Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino's smirky but sincere homages to '70s pop culture are actually a useful touchstone. The slinky first single, "The Magic Piper (Of Love)," combines James Brown horns, fusiony flutes and the best use of the riff from Marvin Gaye's "Hitchhike" since the Velvets' "There She Goes Again." Like Tarantino's movies, nearly every element of the song is taken from someplace else, but they're combined so elegantly that the references seem beside the point. Or maybe they are the point. Who cares? It's a killer single.

The '70s cops continue, from the Wigan Casino (home of the Northern Soul movement) patches on the sleeve to the lovely AM-pop acoustic guitars and strings of "No One Waved Goodbye" to the fact that the album's drummer is ex-Pistol Paul Cook, culminating in "Seventies Night," where the Fall's Mark E. Smith rants in his inimitable style over porno-soundtrack wah-wah.

Collins takes up Smith's rabble-rousing most pointedly in "Keep On Burning," where he sets down his credo: "We'll leave the grungers far behind/In the quagmire of their unkempt minds/Because they've got no style, no elegance, no eloquence/No sensuality ..." The very next track, the Roxy Music-ish "Running Away With Myself," worries that this obsession with the music and styles of Collins' youth is due to his own lost ideals. But in this case, this dichotomy has created the best album of Collins' long career. So nostalgia is not always a bad thing. !!!!

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