Best described as somewhat of a super-star ensemble, the Orange Humble Band has a good excuse for their infrequent outings. Most of the members live half a world apart and have primary musical day jobs which necessitate their ongoing obligations – not that the individual players aren’t used to the long distance commute. Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, best known for their work with the Posies, spend most of their time in Europe and only infrequently visit these shores. Famed producer and guitarist Mitch Easter and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens are in such frequent demand that they too are no strangers when it comes to travel.
Still, the fact that the mainstay of this multitalented super group is based in Australia means that logistics figure prominently in the Orange Humble Band’s pursuits. Guitarist, co-producer, and chief songwriter Darryl Mather was already well-established in his homeland Down Under prior to meeting his future American sidekicks. His two previous bands – the Lime Spiders and the Someloves – had given him an impressive pedigree. Nevertheless, it was his meeting with Easter in the late 1980s that jumpstarted the trajectory that would eventually make the Orange Humble Band a reality.
“I first met and worked with Mitch Easter in 1988, after I first corresponded with him the year before,” Mathers remembers. “Mitch mixed and produced the Someloves single ‘Know You Now’ at his Drive-In Studio in North Carolina. I also met Chris Stamey in New York City on this same trip. Mitch organized Chris to look after [Someloves band mate] Dom Mariani and myself upon our arrival into the States. Thus, I have remained good friends with these two fine gentlemen ever since.”
That visit led to other introductions as well. “Mitch organized a visit to Ardent Studios in Memphis so we could meet Jody [Stephens],” Mathers continues. “I was an especially huge Big Star fan since the late ’70s, so it was a huge thrill at the time.”
Mathers’ connection with Auer and Stringfellow didn’t take place until several years later, but it proved equally fortuitous. “I first met Ken Stringfellow in 1995,” he says, “while the Posies were touring Australia. I was aware of both Jon and Ken’s remarkable vocal ability, and fortunate enough to recruit Ken for the Orange Humble Band. I subsequently befriended Jon soon after, thus his logical inclusion into the Orange Humble Band for our recent recording, Depressing Beauty.”
The roster was filled out with keyboard player Rick Steff and bassist Dave Smith, both Nashville-based musicians whose credits include Lucero and Cat Power. The album he refers to was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis.
Despite the mixed message conveyed through the title, Depressing Beauty is filled with exuberant melodies, effusive sentiments, and the kind of songs that resonate even on first encounter. Like most of the material contained in the band members’ individual resumes, it makes an emphatic impression, leaving no doubt as to the collective’s combined enthusiasm. That, Mathers says, was the intent all along.
“The aim of the album was quite simply to try and create an overtly melodious [sound] … as pure sounding [a] rock/pop recording as humanly possible.”
On that score, they clearly succeeded, but given the length of time that had elapsed since the group’s two earlier albums – Assorted Creams (1997) and Humblin’ (Across America) (2001) – and initial recording that began in 2013, Depressing Beauty was obviously long overdue. What’s more, its release has been limited to a thousand copies in Australia only, meaning it will take some effort on the part of the band’s followers to hear the new music.
“As people would appreciate, [making] true high-end/hi-fi recordings costs considerable money,” Mathers explains. “The Orange Humble Band has always had to self-fund all their recordings and sometimes this can cause obvious delays. Also, the tyranny of distance between the members sometimes delays matters too. In addition, a couple of tunes on this latest recording took a while to get to a point as I imagined them, which further delayed final mastering. Lastly, we don’t have a U.S. label, and I was subsequently lucky enough to convince an old friend John Needham from Citadel Records to finally release the album here in Australia.”
Still, with the pedigrees of the participants – Spooner Oldham, Van Duren, Susan Cowsill, Dwight Twilley, and the late Bill Pitcock among them – a worldwide release is definitely merited. Like their two earlier efforts, Depressing Beauty is quite exceptional. One can only hope that humility doesn’t keep the Orange Humble Band out of the spotlight forever.