Maybe it's just my hopeless romantic streak, but there's nothing that warms my heart more than seeing (or hearing) an underdog coming good against the odds, especially when it comes to the increasingly cut-throat and uncaring Rock'n'Roll world.
It's not entirely fair to say I'd ignored ORPHAN BOY in the past. They've had some coverage on W&H and (as is often the case) our man Mike Roberts cogently noticed their worth back in the mists of 2005 when he trumpeted their first coming as part of Manchester's home-grown 'Two-chord Council Pop' movement: something that may not have bothered the scorers at the NME but was very real on its' own terms and also the launch pad for other local heroes like The Casinos.
Orphan Boy were, of course, not really Mancunians at all. They had fetched up there from their native Lincolnshire out of choice, hoping to escape from the usual boredom and ennui that British provincial life provides and their début album 'Shop Local' was accordingly hailed as a mini-masterpiece in 2008.
In the interim, two of the trio have actually upped sticks and sloughed off back down the A180 to their native Cleethorpes and this seems to have been instrumental in the shaping of their new album, 'Passion, Pain & Loyalty': a record that deliberately expands their palette way beyond their previous 'two chords and no choruses' formula.
The album arrives with a press release which states “we like to think that (the album) could become one of the last Rock'n'Roll records.” Fighting talk and the sort of thing this writer reads several times a week on average. The difference here, though, is that Orphan Boy actually mean it and with 'Passion, Pain & Loyalty' they have gone ahead and made the truly great record their words speak of.
I've no idea how Orphan Boy's inter-band dynamic works, but as I hinted before, the band's home town Cleethorpes seems crucial to the plot here. Several of the songs shaping the record are steeped in its' lore and the band's formative days there, while Rob Cross's vividly-realised lyrics are among the most affecting this writer has heard in years. On '1989' (I'm guessing it's the year Rob was born?) he sings of “in darkened rooms, I'd cut my teeth on morbid thoughts that ran beneath” and of growing up with “the sound of England sleeping.” 'Harbour Lights', meanwhile, is a modern-day Alan Sillitoe-style vision where “every birthday we find ourselves here/ playing pool with our friends,” and “the colourless streets are so sick of my face and the sorrow.” Its' desperate yearning is inescapable and it could quite easily become Orphan Boy's very own 'Everyday Is Like Sunday.'
It's not all internalised, mind. Several of the album's key tracks inhabit a modern British landscape most of us can recognise from Wick to Weymouth. Recent single 'Popsong' is built around a synapse-bothering ice cream van keyboard refrain and thunderous drumming and features some spot-on observations of life on the lower rungs of the music biz ladder (“I sold my only Pop song to a lad from EMI/ he fiddled with his scarf, licked his lips when he told lies”). It's wonderfully scabrous stuff and speaks volumes. 'The Promise', meanwhile, is a blood-stained epic, seemingly written from the point of view of someone about to commit suicide (“because tomorrow in that box, oh we both known what we'll see/ In my Primark shirt, with my clumsy words, they're gonna bury me”), while perhaps the album's centre-piece is the heart-rending 'Some Frontier' where the senseless loss of young life in recent conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq is rammed home by the song's anguished chorus of “where did all our children go?”
Musically, there's the occasional concession to a chorus ('Remember' at least, has a recognisable one), but the band's winning – and highly original way – with motorik grooves, layered chords and impassioned vocals topped off with Chris Day's battery of toms, disco-style hi-hats and busy snare drum offbeats is bigger, more melodic and far more fully realised this time around. The only vaguely inessential track is the (admittedly monster) groove of 'Untitled #9', but the dream-like somnolence of 'A180' (a fagged-out tribute of sorts to the road taking them home to Cleethorpes) comes in its' wake, adding a suitably downbeat and glorious finale.
This is a tremendous record. It exudes passion, is built on pain and powerlessness and demands the kind of loyalty that bands like Joy Division and The Smiths were once afforded. Even if they never record another song, Orphan Boy have bequeathed us something really special here.
Orphan Boy online
Orphan Boy on Myspace