First thing you need to know about His Orchestra is that “Field Guide to the Wilds,” the debut album that saw a quiet digital release back in February, is one of the most enchanting indie-pop albums you’ll hear this year. Its winsome mix of string-, glockenspiel- and keyboard-flavored confessionals reminds me of the likes of Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and the Magnetic Fields (and perhaps the late L.A. quintet Irving). It’s stuff that will soften the hardest heart.
Second thing you should know is that His Orchestra is not an actor’s vanity project. Yes, the band’s seemingly hyper-caffeinated singer-songwriter, Douglas Smith, plays Ben Henrickson on HBO’s Grammy-nominated “Big Love,” but the septet, three or so years into its development and very organic in the way its members fell together, is something of Smith’s parallel unverse.
And thirdly, there is the band name. No, His Orchestra is not a Christian pop band. “We originally were going to call ourselves Goodbye Ian, but it sounded too much like Good Charlotte,” says Smith, 24, explaining that singer-keyboardist Whitney Martin kept exercising her veto power until, at a coffeehouse, the frontman picked up a CD by Bobby Darin & His Orchestra and suggested simply dropping the first part. “I didn’t think for a second that anybody would think it was a religious thing.”
No matter. “Field Guide” seems controlled by pop’s higher powers, not the least of which was the chemistry that took what largely was a batch of break-up ditties by Smith and transformed them into fully realized and stylistically diverse songs. “A lot of the music basically deals with the ups and downs of a functioning relationship,” Smith says. “But what I’m proud of is how everybody in the group brought their different musical backgrounds and sounds” to final product.
“Doug is always in a creative space,” drummer Raviv Ullman says. “Sometimes we have to step up and say, ‘Wait a minute.’ … I think we stayed away from anything too [heavy-handedly] emotional, but the music kind of forces you to pay attention to the lyrics. You’ll hear something that sounds upbeat [like "Black Coffin"], and it’s got this dark side.”
Smith has a penchant for whimsical lyrics that spiral into a warm embrace. From “Antarctica”:
When I’m a hundred and five
and my ashes reside
on the mantel of my future son’s home
I hope to never regret
any moment I’ve spent
trying to tally up the beauty I’ve known
The band bonded most during what turned out to be the arduous recording process during stop-and-start sessions in 2008. “We didn’t feel like we were in a rock band — we really wanted something that sounded like a real CD,” Martin says. Smith, Martin, Ullman, bassist Winthrop Ellsworth, multi-instrumentalist Kestrin Pantera and bandmates were rescued by Carlos Nino, who produced the album, and Dave Trumfio, who mixed it.
The whole process was sparked by a chance meeting with director Matt Amato. “I met him at a gallery show — at the time Raviv and I were just screwing around. He lit a fire under my ass. … He introduced me to Carlos Nino. … He started telling me about [the Heath Ledger-founded creative collective] The Masses. Everybody was so welcoming,” Smith says. “It made me take music more seriously, and making music more plausible.”
||| Live: His Orchestra plays Saturday night at the Bootleg Theater.
||| The album: Highly recommended.
||| Watch: Leah McKissock’s video for “Black Coffin”:
Photo by Gregory Smith