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Boston's Orpheus made four albums in the late '60s and early '70s that were something of an antecedent to soft rock. Although some of the members had roots in the folk scene, and although they were lumped in with the heavier and more psychedelic bands that comprised the short-lived "Bosstown sound," Orpheus were in fact much closer to the "sunshine pop" of the late '60s heard on AM radio. Producer Alan Lorber (the key generator of the Bosstown sound hype, who also produced Ultimate Spinach and other local bands) gave their light harmony pop tunes elaborate orchestrated arrangements that, even as they hinted at Baroque classical music, also betrayed his extensive experience working on television commercials.
Jack McKenes and Eric Gulliksen of Orpheus had played together in a pop-folk group, the Minutemen, and McKenes and Bruce Arnold formed the pop-folk duo the Villagers, before the three of them plus drummer Harry Sandler linked up to form Orpheus. Relying largely on original material, mostly written by Arnold and Gulliksen, Orpheus cut three LPs for MGM (the primary home of Bosstown sound bands) in the late '60s. Despite the marketing of the Bosstown sound as a hip and album-oriented phenomenon, the group's harmonies and songwriting were in fact more similar to singles groups such as the Fifth Dimension and the Association, even with echoes of the Lettermen in places. There might have been some traces of folk and psychedelic music on some tracks, but the light, sometimes precious, love songs were forerunners of adult contemporary music. Sometimes, for instance, the albums sound rather like the songs (although not the arrangements) played by Chicago at their most unabashedly pop. Orpheus, however, were ordinary if ambitious songwriters, lacking the grand melodies to either get them national popularity in their lifetime, or retroactive cult status.
When Orpheus made their fourth and final album for Bell in 1971, only Arnold was left from the original band, although the LP had songwriting and vocals from Steve Martin (not the same as the Steve Martin who sang lead for the Left Banke), who had written some material on Orpheus' MGM recordings. The double-CD Big Beat compilation The Best of Orpheus has almost everything from the MGM LPs, as well as a couple of songs from the Bell LP and some previously unreleased material. ~ Richie Unterberger
- Boston, MA
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