If you’ve spent time in the unhurried world of New Zealand indie rock in the past couple of decades, you might find something comforting, almost familiar about the opening track of The Water, the long-awaited second EP by Wellington band Orangefarm. It strolls forth with a skipping beat, a propulsive guitar strum, a gentle toot of French horn, all suggesting we’re all headed off somewhere cross country.
But as the lilting tune and the his/hers harmonies take hold, it’s apparent there’s something thorny going on. Musically speaking, Do Me In might have a sunny disposition, but its lyrical sentiment isn’t all that friendly.
“If I should ever be like you/ just do me in …” chime the voices of Nigel Mitchell, Vivien Reid and Celia McAlpine. “It’s about people you work with who drive you nuts and you worry that if you stay in the same job for too long you’ll end up like them,” says Mitchell, the quartet’s main — and well, only — man. “It’s a bit of an homage to The Bats too, with a vocal line at the end modelled on a Martin Phillipps’ line from a song I can’t quite remember.”
If Do Me In is able to deftly wrap its lyrical barbs in its pop hooks, the EP’s other tracks offer plenty more bittersweet, literate touches and moments where the deceptively low-key music is a framework for complicated emotions and some cosmic ideas.
Take that title track. Built on a rhythmic pattern seemingly requiring an octopus-like agility from drummer Karen Apperley, it soon casts a Tomorrow Never Knows-like spell with its intertwined vocals, liquid guitar, loping bass and swirling keyboards. It may not have many words, but it’s still a song pondering life, the universe and well, everything in a quietly thrilling way.
“The lyrics are sort of a reflection on the fact that everything is made of matter from the stars and that we all came out of the water, to which we still have an affinity,” says Mitchell.
Or take Princess Margaret, which is named, not for the late jet-setting sister of Queen Elizabeth, but for the troubled Christchurch Hospital, a place which resonates with Mitchell, his late parents having spent their final years in the earthquake-damaged city.
“I was stuck for an idea for the words for the music until, flying into Christchurch one day, I noticed how Princess Margaret Hospital was standing proudly against the hillside. “This was the last place my late dad stayed before we brought him up to Wellington Mum makes a cameo in it too -- she told me about the magnolia trees when I was a kid. “So, to have one holding her tightly underground kind of turns the tree upside down, but also contains the idea that she and the beautiful things that spring from the land are combined.”
Elsewhere, Say the Right Thing adds to the cinematic scope of the EP with its slow drift through a parched landscape (“The picture on the brain, the hillside needs the rain”) which gets a sprinkling of dreamy harmonies.
And to finish, 8 Things ends the set with a baroque-rock side-step, swerving neatly from music-box keyboards to guitar fireworks as its eight-word lyric throws up seemingly disparate images.
“I’d been teaching kids how sense is in the mind of the reader, possibly more than on the page. I tried to write a meaningless song using eight three-syllable words that had nothing logical to do with each other. The last word, ‘terminal,’ though, was pinched from Allen Curnow’s poem, Names are News. I thought it would be a good one to finish on.”
The Water EP was produced and engineered by James Goldsmith at Blue Barn in Wellington with Mike Gibson mastering at Munki.
The band’s previous EP Joined at the Hip was released in 2000. The seeds for Orangefarm were first sewn back in 1992 when Mitchell formed Two Persons Bodiene with Peter Holm and Greg Goulding. The trio went their separate ways but Mitchell and Holm regrouped in 1997 bringing in Reid and Apperley to complete the line-up which recorded the four songs on Joined at the Hip.
After Holm’s departure — to Palau — in 2006, Orangefarm continued a low-key existence with occasional membership shuffles and live shows in the capital. The 2016 arrival of McAlpine brought a new songwriting impetus which lead to the recording of The Water and renewed ambitions to get the band’s songs heard more widely.
Nigel Mitchell (vocals, guitar)
Vivien Reid (French horn, keyboard, vocals)
Karen Apperley, (drums)
Celia McAlpine (bass, vocals)