Blood Oranges

Corn River

East Side Digital, 1990

The Oranges' basic sound is a rootsy rock with country influences -- think of, say, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Their vocal style is a post-VU deadpan, though, and the real wild card is a liberal injection of bluegrass. They come from Massachusetts, home of fellow rock/folk fusers Cordelia's Dad, whom they resemble in attitude if not sound. They do several traditional tunes taken from the bluegrass canon (actually from older roots, but I suspect the Oranges discovered them via the bluegrass world): "Shady Grove", "Dig A Hole" (a variation on "Darlin' Corey") and "Little Maggie". Like Cordelia's Dad, they adapt these tunes to their sound in a very natural way -- neither reverently sticking to tradition nor deliberately flaunting it. The impression given is that both bluegrass and rock are part of their tradition.

A genuinely pleasant surprise, this album. As a mandolin player myself, I'm doubtless predisposed to like a rock band that makes mandolin such an integral part of their sound, but I think the Blood Oranges will appeal to more than just Mandocrucians and bluegrass fans. The band is a four-piece, with both guitarist Mark Spencer and mandolinist Jim Ryan playing lead as well as rhythm parts (they each play both acoustic and electric versions of their respective instruments). The contrast between Spencer's rock leads and Ryan's obviously more bluegrass influenced style add to the interest. After two fairly straight rockers to open the album, we get "Baby Down", an original that sounds just like bluegrass transcribed for a rock band. It features a brief mando solo that includes Ryan harmonizing with himself by overdubbing separate tracks on each channel. Their rendition of Ola Belle Reed's "High on a Mountain Top" achieves a perfect balance of the two sides of the band. "Houseboat" is another fine showcase for Ryan's mandolin, and the album-closing "Time Takes Away" pits chiming mandolin against growling guitar chords.

Ryan handles most of the lead vocals, competently but unspectacularly; bassist Cheri Knight sings the slow "Thief", which has a wistful quality that reminds me of "Hickory Wind", and harmonizes on several others tracks. Ryan also wrote or co-wrote most of the originals, showing a keen ear for catchy hooks that nevertheless sound more rock than pop. In all, a very impressive debut that confidently establishes a unique style for the Blood Oranges.

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