October 01, 2001

Orange Cake Mix "Harmonies & Atmospheres"

Some artists are simply doomed to obscurity, it seems. No matter what they do, they'll just never surface above "cult" status. Maybe it's a self-imposed fate, or maybe they simply can't get that lucky break they really need. Maybe they're just not very good. Whatever the case, these doomed souls eventually do one of two things. They'll either give up, or they'll simply carry on, with no concern about their fate, status, or popularity--often creating a protective shield around their creative spirit as they delve deeper into a self-imposed creative exile, shunning the rest of the world.

Jim Rao's been doing his Orange Cake Mix thing for several years now, and he's been marching to the beat of his own drum machine. From the confines of his Connecticut home, he's been making records with the same amount of proficiency as Bob Pollard. Unlike Bob Pollard, though, Rao's style is simply lo-fi pop, with a dash of atmospheric dream-pop and a little light shoegazing--that sounds not unlike a rougher version of Durutti Column. The man's got a huge, impressive back catalog of albums, singles, split releases, compilation appearances and cassettes--and most of them are good, if not excellent.

In the recent year or two, though, Rao's outflow of music slowed. Last year's album, A Shadow of Eclipse on the Moon, was a brilliant, lo-fi masterpiece. Limited-edition split releases with such bands as Wookieback and Knit Seperates were fair, but they didn't live up to his one truly brilliant moment. I began to wonder if Rao had simply started to back off, or if he had started to make a move towards giving up. Thankfully, Rao simply hasn't given up on us--he's simply been focusing on his music. Harmonies and Atmospheres is his first full length album in a year, though it might have slipped under the radar, were it not for North of January, who rescued this album from its very limited pressing on Rao and his wife's own CD-Rom label, Twilight Furniture.

"Enough about the history," I'm sure you're thinking, "what about the album?!?" Harmonies and Atmospheres finds Rao in a more experimental mood. If you're familiar with his style, you know you're getting lo-fi, with a hint of new wave and a touch of Factory goodness, and that's much the case here--except it's a cohesive, beautifully flowing album, with sonic waves crashing gently against each other. Harmonies and Atmospheres also finds him in a more instrumentally-minded mood, as he does very little singing, except for the occasional dreamy crooning, such as on "Way Out There."

I'm kind of glad that Rao's not singing much on this one; his voice isn't his strongest point, and when he does sing, it instantly makes me think "Durutti Column." Not that such things are bad, mind you; it's just that, like Vini Reiley and Brian Eno, singing isn't his strong point. Plus, with all of the interesting music going on behind him, the singing can be distracting. Kept at a minimum, though, his voice becomes another instrument, and that is a different story. Listen to "Safe Inside Your Sky," and you'll hear what I mean; his singing is simply an instrument in a greater melody, and the words float into your mind.

Overall, this is Rao's mellowest, yet most experimental, record. At times, Harmonies and Atmospheres doesn't sound like an Orange Cake Mix record. He's clearly studied from the book of Eno and Reiley, but at times, he's clearly his own genius. In "June Moonbeams," there's a female Oriental singer, and I'm not sure if its sampled or if it's a live track, but it sounds great, too. That's the nice thing about an Orange Cake Mix record. You know you're going to get a certain sound, but at the same time, you'll always be pleasantly surprised. This is clearly Rao's best album to date, and like his previous album, I'm already waiting to hear what he'll do next.

---Joseph Kyle

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