Local indie-pop veterans join forces as the California Oranges
The California Oranges make pristine pop with the kind of sweet vocals and catchy hooks for which their members’ old bands—Holiday Flyer and Rocketship—were known.
In their new band, which released its first, self-titled CD on Darla Records in January, local indie-pop veterans John Conley and Verna Brock have taken a more straight- forward, accessible rock approach. Jangly guitars, meandering bass lines and crystal-clear vocal melodies—which Conley and Brock both take turns singing—are what make this distinctive and highly listenable, if not exactly groundbreaking, pop music. Conley’s soft, sensitive, Belle and Sebastian-esque vocals meld with Brock’s distinctive, not-quite-but-almost-pretty voice to form the most endearing part of the mix. Plaintive guitar notes drip from “The Weather,” a ballad with heartbreaking lyrics about seeing someone you love being bothered by something they can’t talk about, while a fast pop-punk beat gives “Cross My Heart” its playful energy. At times the lyrics are almost sickeningly cute, as in the last song, “Olivia,” about the singer’s enduring love affair with Olivia Newton-John, or in the one about the difficulties faced by superheroes, “So Much to Do.”
Though the California Oranges are only just over a year old, their two main songwriters—Conley and Brock—have spent the better part of the last decade making lovely pop music for a small contingent of devoted fans.
Conley, 31, a head clerk at Raley’s, has been playing guitar since age 13. Initially inspired by heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, he was later drawn to the 1980s college rock of the Smiths and R.E.M. before discovering Merge Records-style indie pop. In 1993, with his sister Katie, he started Holiday Flyer, a usually drum-less pop band that makes understated songs with pretty male and female vocals. Later that year, at a friend’s wedding, he met Brock, who was then playing bass in the band Rocketship. The two began dating, and a few months later Brock was adding cello, flute, piano and organ to Holiday Flyer songs.
Brock, an environmental chemist and classically trained pianist, has been playing in bands since she was 17. She joined Rocketship when she was 21 and played on that band’s album and its first single, “Hey Hey Girl,” which is a true classic of indie pop with its spacey organs and airy harmonized vocals
The California Oranges grew out of Beanpole, Brock’s solo project. For Beanpole’s last single, she recruited Ross Levine, who she had known from college, to play drums, while Conley volunteered to play bass. The trio had such a good time playing together that they stayed together as the California Oranges, only on different instruments.
“I’m a better bass player than John, and John is a better guitarist than me, so we switched,” Brock says.
Early last year they recorded singles for two compilations on March Records, Love Ballads and Moshi Moshi: Pop International Style. Then, over the summer, they recorded the new CD. Recently, the Oranges added Levine’s identical twin brother Matt as a second guitarist. Matt also plays with Ross in a pop-punk band called the Tank, and has known Brock since they did a radio show together on the student station at CSUS. The Oranges have played a handful of shows in San Francisco and here in Sac, and have a show scheduled at Capitol Garage for Friday, March 23. They have also already written about half the songs for another album to be recorded in August.
“So far, we’re still getting used to being a band and actually playing shows in Sac," Brock says. "California Oranges is an easy band to play shows with; I feel like the music comes across really well. Plus, the scene in Sacramento is developing and broadening. With California Oranges, all the shows we’ve played in Sacramento have all been with good bands. And I know it wasn’t like that five years ago."