Rock Plaza Central
Are We Not Horses ( MAPL, 2006; Yep Roc, 2007 )
Unslushed because: Canadians. Also, “Mrs. C’s grade 3 class from Island Public/Natural Science School” is listed among the contributors.
Factors not initially considered: This album, independently released toward the end of 2006, received such glowing reviews from the likes of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone that it landed the band a deal with highly regarded indie Yep Roc. But I didn’t know that when I played it through.
On further review: Yet again, my obliviousness to an act’s already-established critical and popular acclaim (see Amy Miriello) led me to listen to a seemingly scrappy, homebrewed album with an ear toward cutting some slack. But now that I know the score, I’ll drop the coat of sugar. Rock Plaza Central truck in emotive, horn-laced folk rock with a conceptual tilt; singer-songwriter Chris Eaton is right up front in the mix, channeling Will Oldham (“Our Pasts, Like Lighthouses”) and Jeff Mangum (“My Children, Be Joyful”) as he runs through a confusing song cycle that’s sometimes about horses. I think possibly these horses are mechanical (but, alas, not the kind Mr. Bongiovi sings about; God forbid we should have some realism here), although it also seems that Eaton wants to have sex with them (“How Shall I to Heaven Aspire?”). And then other times he isn’t singing about the horses, or at least I hope he isn’t, as on the ode to the 2003 blackout, “8/14/03,” in which he chants: “We’ll make love till the lights go out/When electricity fails us, we’ll make love with the lights out.” Sex in the dark? Leave it to the Canadians to come up with the really kinky stuff!
So before I got wind of the Pitchfork/Yep Roc stuff, I would’ve said, yeah, these guys are at least trying. The playing is good and the horns and strings provide a nice cushion, even if that style officially jumped the shark with Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions; Eaton clearly has scads of conviction even if his concept is murky, his vocal style distractingly derivative, and his lyrics rote and vague. “There are some things I like about you,” he sings three times in the chorus to “Fifteen Hands,” before following up with, “but horses don’t always like what they do.” I doubt horses much like non sequiturs, either.
Without the accolades and the record deal, this is an ambitious independent album that compensates for its lack of originality with its guts. With the accolades and the record deal—I should simply be happy for Rock Plaza Central, right? I’m sure they’re nice people. But instead of being happy, I’m just frustrated that yet another middling artistic achivement can attract major attention, credit, and distribution.
For the record, though, Mrs. C’s third-grade class did a great job in “When We Go, How We Go (Part II),” my favorite song on the disc. Good work, kids. Make sure you get a slice of the pie.