In his alter ego as Plush, Chicago singer-songwriter Liam Hayes established something of a reputation for reckless ambition and perfectionism to the point of hubris. The sumptuous, elaborate Fed album came with a frustrating backstory of record company wrangles and delays that it became easy for this myth to become the whole story. In fact, the first Plush album (More You Becomes You) was a set of spare, vulnerable piano songs – identifying Hayes, somewhat unexpectedly, as a sort of lo-fi Burt Bacharach.
Subsequently, as Hayes has moved to recording under his own name, he has adopted surprise release strategies and independence – the soulful Bright Penny emerging with little fanfare, and last year’s Korp Sole Roller being distributed through the online direct-from-the-artist service Bandcamp. There has been a tendency to emphasise the more classicist and conservative side of Hayes’ songwriting – but it has come with a winning fragility that is all his own.
Slurrup is a perfectly onomatopoeic title for what immediately announces itself as Hayes’ most ramshackle and spontaneous sounding album to date. In some ways it seems curious that the comparatively ornate Korp Sole Roller was given a low key release with this one getting the more wide-reaching support of Fat Possum. It begins with the voice of a studio engineer asking what channel Hayes’ vocal mic is going through and launches into a series of mostly concise and visceral sounding soulful rock and roll. Only one song breaks the four minute mark, some are shorter than two minutes. Of all the many possible reference points for Hayes’ studied melodicism (Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson), the ones that consistently spring to mind here are Big Star, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. It has some of the raw quality of Chilton’s Like Flies On Sherbet along with the sun scorched vulnerability of Bell’s solo work.
Many of the songs are taken at quite a lick, with a loose free-wheeling quality. The whole album breezes past in what feels like an instant. Lead single Fokus is a case in point, with its tumbling drums and brisk energy. Nathan Cook’s mostly live sounding production often leaves the music deliberately rough around the edges, and Slurrup is for the most part resoundingly good fun. Yet Hayes and Cook also have an armoury of nostalgia-tinged effects, from good old fashioned reverb, to guitar samples played backwards and phasing. This adds to the sense of Slurrup as something of a quirky diversion from Hayes’ more meticulous approach to music.
What really cuts through though, here as much as any other Hayes album, is his winning sense of melody – from the insistent repetitive hooks of Fokus and One Way Out, to the perfectly soulful chorus of Greenfield (“a mishap to your mind just happened”), where Hayes displays common ground with the solo work of Alexis Taylor. The gloriously romantic, shimmering August Fourteen, with its gentle string lines, is the only moment that harks back to the opulence of Fed. Throughout most of these songs, Hayes’ voice sounds stronger and less wayward than it has on previous albums. Slurrup, whilst ramshackle, is certainly the work of a confident artist.
Hayes’ quirky narrative songs sometimes seem to elevate the banal to a higher state, juxtaposing the mundane with the peculiar and unusual. He certainly manages to squeeze a lot of words in to this mercilessly concise album. Sometimes the results are touching, sometimes they are perplexing.
Sometimes the approach on Slurrup seems as if it might be consciously designed to dilute or obfuscate Hayes’ talent. If that is the case then it doesn’t really work. There are moments that could potentially irritate or test the patience – not least the instrumental featuring what seems like audience applause or the album concluding with the sounds of slurping from a bowl. Yet the lingering overall sense is of a musician free from demands and expectations cutting loose and having fun.