Fey in multiple senses of the word, the seminal Scots known as Orange Juice created an oeuvre that has long been hard to access despite the reverence it has inspired among savvy initiates of new wave and post-punk. Too cheery for the latter’s mantle but, at their best, too taut and wiry for the former’s mainstream, Orange Juice’s ramshackle guitar strums, memorable leads, and the wry, tipsily literate vocals of frontman Edwyn Collins were part of a reaction against undue masculinity in rock that would prove quite influential upon subsequent independent pop movements. Yet, the Glasgow crew’s four legendary singles from the Postcard label, three-and-a-half official albums, and assorted other tracks were seldom if ever all available at once during the era of CDs and digital downloads. Though their influence on later Scottish successes (notably fellow Glasgow natives Belle and Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand) and The Glasgow School (Domino’s excellent 2005 compilation of the Postcard singles and other pre-Polydor tracks) brought them well-deserved attention, their original albums have remained out of print — until now. Coals to Newcastle, a comprehensive six-disc/one-DVD Orange Juice retrospective, assembles them in one package.
Those out of print studio albums were less lost masterpieces than lost history. By nearly all accounts, Orange Juice’s finest hour was its spate of recordings for Postcard in 1980 and 1981. Orange Juice’s major label debut You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, which included a studio-polished version of the Postcard classic “Falling and Laughing,” was by no means bad. Sleek where the early sides had been lean and raw, Orange Juice’s first full-length was nevertheless a fairly tight collection of endearing compositions — at least some of which had been recorded in rougher versions for a prospective Postcard album that was eventually released retrospectively as Ostrich Churchyard in 1992. Yet, with the band’s second album, Rip It Up, the spark splattered, and by album three, The Orange Juice, it had turned to soot. On Rip It Up, founding members James Kirk (guitar) and Steven Daly (drums) left in favor of Malcolm Ross and Zeke Manyika, respectively, and the band shifted from its former Jonathan Richman-meets-Television formula to a sound more like Morrissey covering funk, disco and world music. By the time it released its swan song The Orange Juice, the band had descended into the moodier but blander recesses of new wave.
If The Glasgow School remains virtually one-stop essential listening, Coals to Newcastle affirms that Orange Juice’s post-Postmark career is well worth a listen, if not a 124-track platter replete with dozens of alternate versions and BBC sessions. “Felicity,” for instance — available in three different versions here — is not just a highlight of You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, but perhaps the band’s finest moment on record (not to mention a staple of mix CDs crafted by this writer). In a BBC interview included at the end of Coals to Newcastle, Collins says of the song: “That was the very first thing we ever did — it was actually recorded by Malcolm Ross, who was then in Josef K, on a cheap cassette just like one you’d buy in a chain store . . . I’m just surprised that that one didn’t break into the charts, I always thought that one was going to be the one that would do it for us.” Often teetering toward karaoke-theatrics, typically sounding both effete and charismatic, Collins can win over listeners even when bordering on self-parody — as when he reaches for those high falsetto notes on his cover of Al Green’s “L.O.V.E. Love.” Still, that song, “Felicity” and the bulk of the worthwhile material from Orange Juice’s ill-fated dalliance with proper studio recording appear on You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. Coals to Newcastle is a commendable box, but it’s a shame that the narrow availability of Orange Juice’s studio albums has turned a mixed bag into an all-or-nothing proposition.