“We made a conscious decision to make a rock record,” says Matthew Woodley of Plants And Animals. Well, mission accomplished. Back in 2008, the band was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize for their brilliant full-length debut Parc Avenue. This year La La Land has been longlisted – a fair comparative judgment of their most recent release. Their debut was naive, messy and fun; this album sees the band acting all earnest in pursuit of a more 1970s-style AOR record. This seriousness has somewhat damaged the output.
Hailing from Montreal, Plants And Animals are a three-piece that create the sound of a fully-blown Canadian indie collective on a par with the musical orgies of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire. Their initial charm lay in the band’s tendency for laid-back, pastoral folk. Previous material was mainly comprised of acoustic guitars with the occasional inflection of a warm, rich electric guitar solo that took the track on a psychedelic journey.
There will be no cries of “Judas” if the band plays at the Royal Albert Hall, but Plants And Animals have certainly gone fully electric. They’re also becoming more concerned with America’s culture for the mainstream (La La Land = LA?). Track names include American Idol, Game Shows, Fake It and – album opener – Tom Cruz (surely not named after the diminutive actor though?). That first track signals the band’s intent for the rest of the album. The ringing out of guitar feedback, a funky bassline, and then some country-rock inspired electric guitar that dynamically drives the song onwards.
The next song – Swinging Bells – is more ambient. The guitars echo, as do the vocals, and things start to feel a bit trippy again. The song builds up towards a crescendo which intersperses the watery guitars with a sustained Hammond organ blaring as invasively as possible.
The rest of the album continues in a similar vein. There are rockier moments, followed by quieter moments, as if that climax at the end of Swinging Bells typifies the album as a whole. American Idol is one of those rockier moments and even includes a pretty daring jazz brass section. My Morning Jacket managed to benefit from such a gamble on the song Dancefloors and Plants And Animals just about pull it off.
The undoubted star of the album, however, is the guitar work. Plants And Animals can write good songs, but because they tend to be quite long and full of melodic meandering, they were better suited to their old acoustic style were the electric guitar was used sparsely to take the song elsewhere and captivate the listener. You can have too much of the good thing. But at times on La La Land, the guitar work is undeniably brilliant. On the tack Kon Tiki, for example, the brightness of the guitar tone gives the track an openness that – in turn – allows the vocals to breathe.
La La Land certainly takes its inspiration from California. At times, it evokes Laurel Canyon in the 1970s, the wooziness of the Crosby, Stills & Nash era; daydreaming and getting high. But it also reflects the uglier side of California, and the excesses of this album typify the extremes of LA life; sometimes proving too indulgent for its own good.