The Gentle Orchestra is the musical project headed by Southern California’s Malchi “Spidey” De Montrond. His new album with his orchestra (and that’s not an exaggeration) is titled SYNONYMITY, which he hopes will “vividly reimagine the Golden State’s formidable pop-rock tradition.” The band’s already got me hooked, as I’m a true SoCal boy who grew up sharing many of their primary influences: Todd Rundgren, Harry Nilsson, Chet Baker, Elliott Smith, Brian Wilson, Carol King, Laura Nyro, The Beatles, George Harrison, John Lennon, ’70s Bowie, Bill Evans, Leon Russell, Badfinger and Love to name just a very few. Musically the band define themselves as playing “deliciously mutant garage psych samba, hot old school jazz, irresistible pop-rock grooves and beyond.”
The core group is a trio featuring De Montrond (lead vocals/guitar/keys), Bart Broadnax (bass) and Antoine Arvizu (percussionist/engineer). They are augmented with over a dozen guest players, among them Michael Lockwood (a world class guitarist who’s worked with Aimee Mann, Carly Simon and Fiona Apple), jazz funk multi-instrumentalist Robbie Covacevich (Roy Hargrove, Karl Denson) and sound designer Gabe Noel (Tyler the Creator, Jackson Browne). I can’t list every player but it’s a huge and diverse orchestra that includes xylophone, B3 organ, mellotron, brass, saxophones and banjos, along with lots of backing vocalists.
Musically, De Montrond hopes to create “an engrossingly communicative vibe (featuring) compelling, emotionally rich songs of love, anxiety, sadness or exultation, both intensely personal and universally relatable.” Recording and mixing took place at The Compound Studio in Long Beach, California, with mastering by John Golden at Golden Mastering in Ventura.
The opening track “Slow Down” is exactly the opposite of what the title implies. It’s a sunny, upbeat pop gem with jangly electric guitars, a prominent horn section and De Montrond’s Brian Wilson-style vocals. De Montrond also cut together a terrific music video made up of silent comedians running around and getting bashed, even faster than normal. The song’s middle break features a George Harrison-like slide guitar. The conclusion finally slows down as the title promised, suddenly switching to an orchestral ELO backing and even Jeff Lynne style vocals.
“So Long Ago” makes a lateral move into John Lennon-Harry Nilsson territory, with the kind of piano, vocals and string arrangements Lennon favored for the albums he produced. Nobody would mistake De Montrond’s voice for Harry Nilsson but it nonetheless has a unique and engaging quality, perfect for the backings he’s created. There’s a great ’80s style sax solo by one of two credited saxophone players (David Railcke or Robbie Covacevich).
“Karen is” continues the Beatles connection with thick waves of Harrison acoustic guitar paired with very ’60s lead and harmony vocals, maybe along the lines of the Guess Who (“Undun”) or The Grass Roots. It even has one of those “bomp bomp bomp” scat sections. There’s a lovely harmony lead guitar section that’s so quick you’ll miss it if you blink.
“To skate” rolls way back to the mid-’60s by way of skateboard, though this track feels more like Elton John than Jan & Dean. The B section does evoke the fully orchestral backing of Pet Sounds, however! Piano, banjo and strings abound. Then as if to prove you can’t leave these guys alone for even a moment, there’s a third section that’s a cross between “Penny Lane” and “Yellow Submarine” including brass and announcer voices.
Though “Smile” had me anticipating a Brian Wilson tribute, the music is instead closer to one of Tiny Tim’s retro ditties. I can’t think of anyone besides Paul McCartney (or maybe Queen) who’d go to the trouble to create a brand new song with a modern but old-timey 1920’s orchestra, but De Montrond’s done so. It’s way more sophisticated than the songs of that era but still sounds quite authentic! Touching base with McCartney again, “It’s Over” combines the inventiveness of RAM with the sound of the later-era Beach Boys, with handclaps and a touch of barroom piano for good measure. Also another great sax solo by whomever’s turn it was!
“Everybody” slows the tempo down for a contemplative acoustic ballad that sounds like it was recorded in a big, wide performance space. De Montrond pushes his lovely, heartfelt vocals way back, though I’m not sure why. The touches of spring reverb electric guitar are quite tasty.
“Home Alone” is what the press kit calls “the profound, shadowy seven-minute closer.” It begins somewhat like “Everybody” and this time De Montrond has his vocals upfront, atop the acoustic guitar and piano, where they belong. It’s got a stately rock beat while presenting as more of a curtain-closer for a stage musical. The backing instruments build slowly and logically, with trilling choirs (Claire McKeowan) and wailing saxes riding atop De Montrond’s highly sophisticated melodies and chord schemes. It’s very dramatic and a perfect closer for this unusual and surprising collection. The evocation of “kids going outside to play” with the lyrics and sound effects is a real stab to the heart.
Though I’m a sucker for music with multiple layers and so many influences, I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this collection for its songs and inventiveness. Great stuff!