July 29 marked the official release date for the first full-length from Wild Sweet Orange. Normally, that’s not a big deal. But in the case of this Birmingham, Ala.-based quartet, delivering a new record into listeners’ hands has been anything but easy-squeezy.
Now signed to Canvasback Music, which is part of Columbia Records (and which also released the popular soundtrack to the movie “Once”), this group of 20-somethings has been in recording contract limbo for at least 2 years. Originally signed to Earfood Records in 2005, the band put out its first EP the following year. But the release of their full-length, which was supposed to come out that same year, was delayed when the band was inexplicably dropped by the label. (I can’t find a good explanation anywhere on the Web. Does anyone know what happened?)
I have been listening to Wild Sweet Orange — who take their name from the essential oils, not the tea; apparently the band doesn’t wear deodorant— since the 2006 debut of the “House of Regret” EP. In fact, I listened to the title track, with its straight-ahead rocking power chords and the infectious vocal stylings of singer/songwriter Preston Lovinggood, over and over that year, along with the other tune that got a lot of airplay, the haunting “Ten Dead Dogs.” Both great songs, topping my list of all-time favorites. And then came news of a pending LP, which I was eagerly awaiting, based on the strength of the 2 songs I knew; I had heard about, but had no way to hear, the rest of the recordings (they weren’t on iTunes then). Instead, the band released a 4-song EP, called “The Whale,” in 2007 (“Wrestle with God,” which was the stand-out and got airplay, did not make the final cut). But no complete record.
Until now. And the wait was worth it. The aptly titled “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy” makes good on the earlier promise and showcases the breadth of the band’s full repertoire. There are the obvious Southern roots-rock influences — think Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet. But they are also well-versed in the Young canon (both Neil’s and Angus’s), have picked up some bluesy, trippy Led Zep tricks (the distinctive echoey guitar lines of “No Quarter” weave in and out of “Aretha’s Gold”), and studied Tom Petty’s pop formulas (the bright, hook-laden “Either/Or” is reminiscent of the Heartbreakers’ classic wailing arpeggios found on “American Girl“), among others. And they are clearly fans of their contemporaries, like Drive-by Truckers, Son Volt, Vampire Weekend, the Whigs, and Bright Eyes.
According to the band, their sound is “acoustic rock,” which seems appropriate, especially for songs like “An Atlas to Follow,” which features Dobro and banjo picking and picks up the familiar folk refrain, “this little light of mine,” and “Sour Milk,” which weaves soft guitar finger-picking with some dreamy, spacey accordion drones. But much of the record features the familiar chunking, grinding, heavy fuzz-guitar of “good old American rock music.” I hear the vestiges of Guns ‘n Roses, Heart, Melissa Etheridge, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen in the pounding drums and driving bass lines. This is music for cruising around on a hot day, with the windows down, the sunroof open, and the volume turned up to 11.
I have seen Lovinggood’s voice compared to Billy Corgan’s of Smashing Pumpkins, and I could concur, especially when he erupts into screams at a song’s apex (as on the slow-burning rocker “Tilt”), a formula that Will Sheff of Okkervil Riveremploys to great effect. But I think Corgan’s voice is too harsh for comparison. Lovinggood’s is sultrier, like Bono when he “oohs” and “ahhs,” but with the nasal twang of Ryan Adams, some snidely Eef Barzelay, and in his softer singing moments he sounds like a gravelly Paul Simon. Ironically, the LP ends on a shimmering, hopeful note, with Lovinggood doing his Joni Mitchell best on “Land of No Return.”
All in all, the record is sweet revenge for the band because the production, overseen by Mike McCarthy (Spoon, And You Will Know Us…), is so much more expansive, heavier, and richer than it might have been in 2006. This is especially apparent to me with the older, more familiar songs, which have a bit more heft and texture without seeming overcooked. I guess having more time on their hands has allowed the band to mature and grow.
So, if you like your rock loud, with a strong back-beat, a layered mixture of acoustic guitar strumming and power chords, soaring leads, and dramatic vocals, go get this record. Besides, it’s a steal on iTunes (11 songs for $7.99). And the newfound raucous, raw sound in the recording makes me think that they’re even better live in concert. Although, if it’s true that they don’t wear deodorant, you may not want to get too close to the stage.