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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Plants and Animals: "Parc Avenue"

One of the reasons why I initially got into independent music several years back was because it all sounded new and fresh to me. Raised, like most, on an unhealthy diet of MTV and ClearChannel radio (surely the McDonald's and Burger King of the music world), artists like Of Montreal, The Shins, and The Postal Service introduced me to the fact that not all music has to sound the same. And that made a lasting impression on me. Nowadays, I'm all too aware of the fact that even a lot of indie music sounds far too normal for its own good, but the potential to break free from musical norms is still there. So when a band like Plants and Animals comes around with what is possibly the freshest take on indie rock since The Decemberists, I become utterly drawn to the music and can't help but rave about it.

Album-opener, "Bye Bye Bye" is a solemn piano ballad turned triumphant tent revival anthem, complete with a choir singing the song's title with about as much enthusiasm as is ever shown on Parc Avenue. Lead vocalist, Warren Spicer cries in a Bowie-esque howl, "What's gonna happen to you/ you have woke up to soon/ and found the world rearranged/...say goodbye to before/ you are not welcome anymore!" The song trots along at a steady pace, adding in instrumentation to thicken the mix and the end result is completely enthralling. "Good Friend" plays out more traditionally, like a cool, mellow rock song paired with shoe-gazer sentiments. The verses are head-bobbingly addictive, while Spicer notes, "It takes a good friend to say you've got your head up your ass," during the song's barely-there, string-filled chorus.

Without question, the centerpiece of Parc Avenue is "Faerie Dance," a 7-minute journey through at least three distinct musical styles, here blended perfectly, seamlessly. In the beginning, the song gently moves along, carried by acoustic guitars, a lap steel, and a persistent, soft hi-hat roll. It bursts out of its shell at around 2:30 with dark, forceful pianos, and violins straight out of a horror movie. Eventually it collapses into a bright, happy sing-along with Spicer singing, "I fell asleep under a tree/ got woken up by birds and bees/ they're hard at work but they're hardly workin'." I defy you, or anyone to listen to this song and not start singing along with it at this point. It's simply one of the most infectious songs that I've heard in a long time.

"Feedback in the Fields" speeds things up with Kill Bill-esque whistle-led road warrior song, while "À L'orée Des Bois" is just another song that begs to be sung along to. The lyrics are near-unintelligible ("We woke up today, and I thought I was yesterday") but they're no less enjoyable as a result. The band has this uncanny ability to structure their songs in a seemingly perfect manner for the most part. Layers come in and leave as they are needed, vocal melodies are always wisely chosen, and any additional harmonies or instrumental lines are without flaw. There are some moments on the album where the band seems a little too overindulgent, like on "New Kind of Love" where the song runs about 2 1/2 minutes longer than it probably should. The rest of the song is amazing, but once the band starts harmonizing the song's title over flutes and flimsy guitars, it just gets to be a bit much.

"Early in the Morning" is the album's first real ballad, sounding like it was ripped right off of an old Eagles album. But at 2:22 in length, the feeling doesn't last for long. It's followed by "Mercy," Parc Avenue's strangest but perhaps most awesome track. It feels like a innocent band jam session gone awry when someone decided to bring in some psychedelic drugs. Spicer does more talking on the track than actual singing and the chorus is simply a bunch of people yelling "Mercy!" Later, in the bridge, they actually start spelling " M - E - R....C- Y" as a low, distorted voice repeats in agreement. In standard form though, the song loses its psycho-funk sound with about 1 1/2 minutes to go and trades it in for an electric guitar-driven coda that is no less impressive.

The album's last three songs are perhaps its most varied. "Sea Shanty," a song which lacks the Decemberists-like appeal that the title would imply, but still manages to please. "Keep it Real" is a song in reverse, with the triumphant ending coming in the beginning, leaving the song's remaining minutes to be more of a soft, moody affair - complete with jazz sax. It is not necessarily bad, though it is one of the album's most unremarkable tracks, despite its attempts. The closer, "Guru" is a 7-minute long instrumental. Remember when I spoke of overindulgence? This is perfect example of that. "Guru" shows no valid reason for existing other than to show the band's jamming capabilities, which, frankly, they already proved in "Mercy." It's an unfortunate ending to an otherwise amazing album.

Despite its ending, Parc Avenue is nothing if not a success. Plants and Animals is a band that needs to be heard and remembered, not just some random Band of Horses lyric. They manage to bring together all the best features of indie and classic 70s rock and blend them into something that is truly awesome. Their musicality is indisputable, filled with complex guitars, drums, harmonies, and memorable vocal performances. Though they do lay it on a bit too thick occasionally, the only thing I truly take away from the album is the undeniable desire to experience it all over again. Songs get stuck in my head, driving me to stop whatever it is I may be listening to and pop this in instead. To be sure, Parc Avenue is one of the best indie rock albums of 2008, and one that I can't imagine not listening to for some time to come! Plants and Animals has left me pleasantly surprised, and I highly recommend them to anyone who may find indie music stale and unappealing.

Key Tracks:
1. "Bye Bye Bye"
2. "Faerie Dance"
3. "À L'orée Des Bois"
4. "New Kind of Love"
5. "Mercy"

8 out of 10 Stars

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