Photo by Holly Arete

The music industry’s tunnel-vision talent scouting is hurting it as much as Napster ever did. Terrified of making an error in a field with breathtaking staff turnover, major-label A&R personnel tend to sign mediocre practitioners of currently dominant genres.

In such a climate, a band of Orson’s quality and bravado can be all but overlooked, despite flaunting its wares right in the shadow of L.A.’s label offices. Orson’s gorgeous, authentic morphing of pop, rock, R&B and soul (think early Prince meets Queen) seduces most who hear it, yet the group is still playing only a couple of modest, often off-circuit shows a month and struggling to release its first full-length CD after four years together. Unusually for an act with obvious musical and onstage chemistry, Orson was assembled through ads, auditions and word of mouth: Guitarists Chad Rachild and George Astasio tried out more than 40 vocalists before Jason Pebworth, fresh from roles in the touring Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, answered their call. Scene veteran Johnny Lonely brought supple bass lines, and more recently the unflappable Chris Cano took over the drum stool from the departed Johnny Fedevich.

Orson (named after Citizen Welles) remain philosophical regarding their obscurity: “The longer that we take, the better that we get,” notes the shaven-headed Pebworth during a break in rehearsals at their cluttered downtown lockout. “Every day, even in the process of making this record, we’re improving.”

Orson’s profile hasn’t been helped by their playing West Hollywood’s unusually supportive Viper Room almost exclusively throughout 2002. This was more accident than design, but now Orson are taking the reins and prioritizing the fans: “In the past year we’ve tried to focus on free shows, more Eastside gigs, all-ages places like Juvee’s Skate Shop and the Echo,” notes Lonely.

For unsigned acts, Hollywood presents a morale-draining environment. “There is no audience,” laments Pebworth. “It’s more of a ‘scene’ — people are in competition.”

“We go even to, say, Hermosa,” says Rachild, “and you’re playing to people who want to hear music.”

While the members of Orson actively support other emerging L.A. bands, they have no regular gigging partners. “We play with anybody,” stresses Lonely. “We rarely turn down a gig.”

Perhaps Orson’s as yet untitled debut album (due for self-release this spring) will enlighten new ears, though just completing the recording is a financial odyssey. Fortunately, they’ve found a soul mate in producer Noah Shain, a recent Orson convert who’s incredulous at their “L.A.’s best-kept secret” status. “Johnny played me some demos they’d been making, and I said, ‘I have to mix that!’ I went to every show over last summer, and I courted them. I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t made a record yet, and I made it my life’s mission to produce an Orson album.”

With four years of continually evolving world-class material, track selection for the album will be torturous. “It’ll be a mix,” says Lonely. “Half greatest hits, half brand-new superhits.” Orson’s demos have bulged with instant favorites and lasting flavors, hinting that their first full-length will be a monster. Slated for inclusion are the hedonistic amour of “No Tomorrow,” the T. Rex–via–Motown backroom cool of “Happiness,” and the 6/8 face-the-truth nostalgia of “Already Over.” A throbbing rhythm section gauzed with layers of twin-

guitar interplay, along with Pebworth’s epic Morrissey-meets-Mercury vocals, makes for a mass-appeal package.

The irony is that Orson’s “secret weapon” should be 101 for any band: “What’s good about Orson is that there’s a timeless quality to it, because they’re good songs — what a fucking concept!” notes the down-to-earth Cano, speaking, as a relative newcomer, with both insider and outsider perspective.

For all the hair-tearing, Orson’s patience will pay off: “First of all, we’ve had enough years — we’re sitting on an egg!” Pebworth notes, while mulling their beneath-the-radar isolation: “We all feel that we would want to be part of something that’s going to make it commercially, but this band can only play how we are. In the end, it would be more of a detriment to us if we did conform to whatever’s popular, ’cause the second we start playing that, it’s already over!”

Regardless of recognition, Orson’s debut will be among the most enthralling L.A. albums unleashed this year. Don’t wait around for the sanitized major-label re-release.

Orson play the Three of Clubs on Thursday, April 22;

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