|Cultural origins||Mid 1990s|
Chamber pop (or ork-pop) is a subgenre of indie pop or indie rock which arose in the 1990s as a reaction against the lo-fi aesthetic of the time. Drawing from the lush orchestrations of Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, and Lee Hazlewood, chamber pop grew out of the lounge revivalism of the decade, but without irony or kitsch. Artists placed a renewed emphasis on melody and production, layering baroque, ornate songs with richly textured orchestral strings and horns while rejecting the traditions of grunge, electronica, and other concurrent musical movements.
Definition and influences
Music fans and writers have variously labelled the hybrid sound of string sections and rock music as "symphonic pop", "chamber pop", and "ork-pop" (short for orchestral pop). Ork-pop refers to a branch of underground rock musicians who shared an affinity with the Beach Boys' 1966 album Pet Sounds, such as the High Llamas and bands from the Elephant 6 collective. The name was the creation of rock critics, encompassing everyone who was a fan of the Beach Boys to fans of Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini. Chamber pop is characterized by a sophisticated use of orchestras and voices embodied by the majority of Louis Phillipe's productions for él Records. AllMusic states that chamber pop carries on the "spirit" of the baroque pop of the 1960s, while cultural writers Joseph Fisher and Brian Flota call it the "heir" to baroque pop. New York Daily News' Jim Farber summarizes chamber pop: "think Donovan meets Burt Bacharach".
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Writer Louise Mooney Collins believes that Pet Sounds "helped define the genre known as 'chamber pop' — intimate, precisely arranged songs with rock's sweep but without its bluesy clamor." Author Carl Wilson (no relation) says that Brian Wilson's "pained vulnerability", "uses of offbeat instruments", "intricate harmonies", and "the Smile saga itself" became a touchstone for any band that was labelled chamber pop. Smile, whose recordings remained unreleased for decades, was embraced by the alternative rock generation once bootlegs from the album became more widespread in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Musician Robert Schneider explained: "When we started hearing Smile bootlegs, it was mind-blowing. It was what we had hoped it would be, but a lot of those songs weren't finished, so there was still this mystery ... The potential of what Smile would have been was the primary thing that inspired us (Elephant 6)."
Not all ork-pop artists turned to Wilson and Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks for inspiration; many were admirers of one another's work. Ork-pop was part of a larger trend which involved musicians who rejected traditional rock conventions, such as Tortoise and Stereolab, although those specific bands are not considered "ork-pop" (says Chris Holmes of the band Yum-Yum). During the mid 1990s, concurrent rock acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, and R.E.M. occasionally used strings in their sound, but they generally remained firmly entrenched in traditional rock trappings. The High Llama's Sean O'Hagan commented: "There is this whole misconception that American college rock with twisted baseball hats and checked shirts is adventurous, but it's the most conformist, corporate thing out there. ... All these bands sound like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It's a shame that it couldn't be discovered from the get-go for what it is. A lot of it is just very simple dumb-guy rock."
During the 1970s, record companies helped facilitate large multi-instrumental bands by financing instruments like strings, horns, and keyboards on artists' albums, but this became rarer as time went on. Fisher and Flota trace chamber pop to "at least" the mid 1990s. It emerged in parallel to Shibuya-kei in Japan, which also revisited the trend of foregrounding instruments like strings and horns in their arrangements. In 1996, Billboard″s Craig Rosen wrote: "Bored by the three-chord simplicity of grunge and neo-punk, a new breed of popsmiths is going back to such inspirations as Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and Burt Bacharach in the quest for building the perfect orchestrated pop masterpiece. ... Although the commercial success of these acts ... has been moderate at best, their music offers an alternative for those who have grown tired of distorted guitars and angst-ridden vocals."
Most ork-pop musicians were aged beyond their early 20s, and many struggled to achieve significant retail or radio success amid its modern rock competition. According to Natalie Waliek of the music retailer Newbury Comics, some of the interest in ork-pop could have been attributed to the then-renewed interest in psychedelia and the overlap with "the cocktail/lounge music thing, because that music [also] has orchestrations". Touring with full string and brass ensembles also proved difficult for some, which became another factor that prevented the genre's mainstream success.
Billboard's Chris Morris wrote that this debut single by Hayes made "quite a splash with the international press ... heralded as the harbinger of a new school of orchestral pop — 'ork pop' for short."
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In a profile of ork-pop, Rosen lists examples that include Yum-Yum, the High Llamas, Richard Davies, Eric Matthews, Spookey Ruben, Witch Hazel, and Liam Hayes (Plush). Matthews, who partnered with Davies as the duo Cardinal, was viewed as one leader of the ork-pop movement. Popmatters' Maria Schurr wrote in a retrospective review of Cardinal's eponymous 1994 debut album: "in some circles, [it has] been called the grunge era's answer to Pet Sounds, and, although it has not been as widely cited as the Beach Boys' classic, it has undoubtedly influenced more off balance indie popsters than one may expect." Music journalist Jim DeRogatis associates the ork-pop and chamber pop movement to bands like Yum-Yum, Cardinal and Lambchop. In 2004, when asking the Decemberists' bandleader Colin Meloy whether he felt a connection with the movement and the band's work, Meloy answered: "I don't know if we've ever been labeled that before. So much attention gets put on the lyrical content—the songs themselves—that people don't pay as close attention to the arrangements, which is something we're trying to change. ... I think the orchestral side—the cinematic side of the music—is going to come through more and more."
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