Allen Clapp and His Orchestra

I grew up around San Jose, California. Lived here most of my life. I’m pretty convinced that there is no better place to live in the world than the San Francisco Bay Area. You can have a different opinion if you’d like, but without getting into the particulars, you are wrong. Just sayin’.

For about Eight and a half years, however, during the start of this millennium, my wife and I moved to Chandler, Arizona. There were plenty of good reasons for the move. But, as we look back on those years, we often joke that God had us live out the “desert” years of our lives literally in the desert. Don’t get me wrong; I can point to any number of moments and events and people which convinces me our time there served a purpose in our lives (and I think the lives of others, as well). But it was a tough eight and a half years.

One of the great things that happened for me while in Arizona was a rekindling of my passion for music.  With music becoming so much more accessible on the internet, the discovery of albums by the likes of Eels, The Hold Steady, The Clientele, Delirous?, Arcade Fire, Nicole Atkins, Sixpence None The Richer, The Thrills, and so many more began exciting me in ways I hadn’t felt since high school.  And in a sometimes emotionally dark period, this music lifted my soul and reminded me of the way art connects us to the beauty of God, and to each other.  It helped transform me at a time when I needed spiritual transformation.

One of the bands I stumbled upon during this period of musical rediscovery was The Orange Peels.  It’s okay if you haven’t heard of them.  Well, it’s not okay, but I understand.  Not many have.  Which is a shame because these guys are wonderful.  Mostly, “these guys” are Allen Clapp and his wife Jill Pries.  Their 2005 album Circling the Sun is the one that first grabbed my attention.  It was magical.  Filled with enough hooks to empty a stocked trout pond, this sounded like the kind of pop music I envisioned myself making, had I ever bothered to really learn to play music.  I was dramatically swept up in songs like “Something In You”, “So Right”, “California Blue”, “Boy In Space”, “Long Cold Summer”… I should just stop now, or I’ll end up naming every song on the album.  I didn’t realize it at first, but the album just sounded like California to me.  And more specifically, my home of Northern California.  And in that way, I’m sure Circling the Sun provided a kind of comfort for me at a time when I was questioning a lot of decisions and just missing home.

It wasn’t long after that I discovered The Orange Peels were based in Sunnyvale, just outside of San Jose.  That explained much of the NorCal feel I was getting from Allen Clapp’s compositions.

I also discovered that there were earlier albums by The Orange Peels, as well as something called Allen Clapp and His Orchestra as early as 1994.  This 1994 album was a little messy and uneven, but Clapp’s hooks were already present.   A few years later, The Orange Peels would make their debut and remain Clapp’s central creative outlet.

Earlier this year, following a one-off Orange Peels single (the delightful “Aether Tide”), it was announced that Allen Clapp was working on a new Orchestra album.  I admit, I was a little disappointed.  I have come to love so much the music of the Orange Peels, that this felt like a misguided step to me.  A unescasary diversion.  Keep progressing the Peels!

Then I heard the new album.

It’s funny.  Essentially, it’s still the Orange Peels in as much as Allen Clapp is the driving creative force of the band.  But there is something just a little different about Mixed Greens, the new release by Allen Clapp and His Orchestra.  The difference is subtle, maybe even unnoticeable to the unappreciative, but these songs just sound different.  In a good way.  No, a great way.  The opening instrumental, “Picnic at the Hermitage”, presents quiet, discordant ambiance behind a simple and lovely melody.  It’s a calming moment before we are launched into the bouncy bittersweet melancholy of “Downfall No. 3” (which includes the great lyric “Now I’m trying to get by on minimal medication, Carol King, and Chrissie Hynde” – I can totally relate to music as therapy).

From there, Clapp treats us to the kind of delightful, hook-layden, pop melodies I have always expected to hear from him.  This guy writes music that is just so darn pretty, it makes me want to cry.  But where I think this album differs from the Peels stuff is the seasonal tone.  The Orange Peels always felt like summer to me.  Sometimes sunset, sometimes sunrise, middle of the day or middle of the night – but always summer.  Mixed Greens sets me squarely in winter.  The way the keyboard fill the melodies is constantly reminiscent of snowfall or winter rain (this is especially apparent in “If the Wind is Right”).  And, without avoiding the obvious, songs like “Autumn Heart” and “The Winter In You” (an album highlight) go a long way towards bringing this vibe to fruition.

“In the Hall of the King of the Land Beyond the Sun” sounds like 1960’s British chamber pop.  It’s groovy.  “Back 2 Normal” is a simple and good reminder that change is an unstopable force.  The repetition of the lyric “sometimes we can’t go back to normal” seems intended more to convince the singer of the lyric rather than the person it’s being sung to.  And I think it’s meant for me, too.  Change and transformation are hard.  Pain is often required.  But it is absolutely good.  Sometimes I need to get uncomfortable and step into the awkwardness.

And maybe that’s what Allen Clapp is doing here.  The Orange Peels were a comfortable, known entity.  But this is different.  It probably required stepping into the awkward a little and opening himself up to some change.  But this is good.  Really good.  I enjoyed getting to know his autumn heart.  And I like knowing that, even though I’ve never met or spoken to the man, he is making this great music just a few miles from where I live.  This music feels like home.

So we are back in the South Bay now, my family and I.  It feels great.  It’s not like it was ten years ago.  Change is unstoppable.  But this is good.   Really good.

CHECK OUT:  Mixed Greens by Allen Clapp and His Orchestra.  Also, go back and check out one of my favorite albums that nobody has heard of, Circling the Sun by The Orange Peels.


~ by themattmorrisshow on December 17, 2011.

One Response to “Allen Clapp and His Orchestra”

  1. […] my love of The Orange Peels and the music of their front-man, Allen Clapp, in previous posts (read Allen Clapp and His Orchestra here).  They are groovy.  And I don’t throw that word […]

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