One of the most prolific bands on Bristol, England's legendary indie pop label Sarah Records, the Orchids were also one of the label's most press-shy outfits. Formed in 1986 in Penilee, Scotland, a suburb of Glasgow, the Orchids took their initial inspiration from some of the city's better-known acts of the time, particularly Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (singer James Hackett sounded more than a little like Cole and was often derided in the U.K. press for that resemblance) and Primal Scream during that band's original '60s pop phase. Hackett, rhythm guitarist Matthew Drummond, lead guitarist John Scally, bassist James Moody, and drummer Chris Quinn fit neatly into the bowl haircut and anorak look of the British indie scene, and their songs, the sort of archetypal late-'80s U.K. guitar pop for which terms like "winsome," "jangly", and "twee" were invented, made them both new pop heroes for a certain audience and an easily dismissible target for others. Press reaction tended to be either laudatory or scathing, with very little in between.
The Orchids first hooked up with Sarah's Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd just as the label was getting underway in 1987, and so the Orchids' debut single, 1988's "I've Got a Habit," was only the second Sarah release. A second single, "Underneath the Window, Underneath the Sink," followed later in the year. The Orchids' early singles were successful enough that simultaneous to the release of their third 7", "What Will We Do Next," in September 1989, Sarah released the label's first-ever album, the 10" Lyceum, a lengthy eight-track EP that, consistent with Sarah's value-for-money ethic, contained no songs that had previously appeared on singles.
The Orchids' next single, 1990's "Something for the Longing," is possibly the group's all-time high point, a gently yearning lost love song with a gorgeous chorus. Later that year, the Orchids released a one-off single on the short-lived Caff Corporation imprint, the moody "An Ill Wind That Blows." Around this time, Drummond and Moody started a sideline career playing guitar and bass for their Sarah labelmates and fellow Glasweigans the Wake, a situation that would remain in place until the Wake split in 1994.
For the first three years of their career, the Orchids concentrated almost exclusively on 7" singles, in keeping with the British indie scene's preference for immediacy and disposability. However, beginning with the Penetration EP in February 1991, the Orchids released only EPs and LPs for the remainder of their career. Unlike the Chills and some other bands who finally began releasing full-length records after a long string of singles, the Orchids seemed to have amassed quite a stockpile of good songs during the time when they only released four to six tunes per year, because there's no drop-off in quality evident on albums like 1991's Unholy Soul and 1992's Epicurean. Even more importantly, the Orchids' sound neither remained boringly static nor succumbed to the sort of trend-hopping jumps into acid house or other fads that felled some of their Sarah labelmates. A more reflective, mature quality started creeping into the group's later records, and the guitar jangle became supplanted, though never entirely replaced, by '60s-style Farfisa organ textures, while various female friends of the band began adding harmonies to Hackett's previously unadorned vocals. The 1992 EP Thaumaturgy introduced this shimmering new sound, but its January 1994 follow-up, Striving for the Lazy Perfection, outshines all of the Orchids' other albums. Whether the group decided not to follow up a career highlight or decided to bow out as Sarah was winding up its operations, the Orchids quietly disbanded after a final performance at the Sarah Records farewell party in 1995.
The breakup wasn't destined to last, however. About a decade later, the Orchids reunited, wrote some new songs, and released their fourth full-length album, 2007's Good to Be a Stranger. The reunion went so well that the group decided to stay together, releasing their next album, The Lost Star, in the autumn of 2010. The album was mixed by Ian Carmichael, who had produced most of their earlier work. ~ Stewart Mason
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