Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Loud Family -- Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things

This album is a masterpiece. I figured I'd cut to the chase, not burden you with the teasing tap dance that so many rockcrits (and wanna-be-rockcrits like myself) engage in so as to make their prose more interesting than it might really be. But you, gentle reader, deserve the unvarnished truth straightaways. There couldn't be a way to make this album better.

A little backstory: Scott Miller first rose to prominence as the leader of Game Theory, an intelligent power-pop band from San Francisco by way of Davis, CA. They were signed to Enigma Records (famous for the Smithereens, Poison, Mojo Nixon, Stryper, and a slew of others), and released a whole bunch of great albums, the most "popular" being Real Nighttime, Big Shot Chronicles, and their double-LP masterwork, Lolita Nation. After releasing one last effort and a compilation, Enigma went bankrupt, and Game Theory split in 1990. Three years later, [Scott joins the group This Very Window, rechristens the group The Loud Family] (NOTE: original Loud Family bass-player R. Dunbar Poor clarified the sequence of events to me thusly: "One minor correction: It is true that three of us (Zachary Smith, Paul Wieneke and I) had formed the rather low-key "This Very Window". But to say that Scott joined our band has the tail wagging the dog: we each individually signed on with Scott's Game Theory. After a few rehearsals, he decided that the energy and sound of the band was different enough to warrant a new name, whereupon he suggested "Loud Family", and it was Good."), and releases the album I'm telling you about today. To call it merely powerpop is to do it a disservice. It takes the existing framework of the genre, adds sonic experimentation, a healthy dose of psychedelia, perceptive yet cryptic-at-times lyrics, some immaculate production by Mitch Easter (their producer since Game Theory in 1985), and you have an amazing audio tiramisu. To say that its incredibly produced could leave folks with the impression that beneath all the studio construction the songs are lacking, which couldn't be further from the truth. On both fronts, this album scores.

I realize I'm probably doing precious little more than just raving like a fanatic; let me post something I wrote about this album in the late '90s, as part of a webpage I built but never really did much with:

When was the last time an album grabbed you by the cranium and wouldn’t let go? Dramatic, intelligent, oblique yet accessible, impenetrable yet engaging, both sonically and structurally surreal yet familiar… the Loud Family’s first album Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things earns all of these sobriquets over the course of its 19 tracks. Named after a throwaway line in the song "A Horse With No Name" by soft-rockers America, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is an astounding artistic achievement both in terms of compositional creation and sonic scope. Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (henceforth P&B&R&T for brevity’s sake) takes intelligent power pop vignettes and proceeds to stir in a generous helping of aural experimentation to come up with an hour’s worth of thinking-man’s rock.

First a little backstory (How original of me; I used the same phrase then as I did now.) : Scott Miller was the leading light in Game Theory, a hooky, intelligent Northern California band started in 1982. Although their earlier releases never lacked portions of brilliance, the songs tended at times to be a tentative (yet comfortable, I would add today) marriage of pop and prog. They hit upon a winning sound with 1985’s Real Nighttime LP, melding James Joyce with Alex Chilton to create joyful, exuberant powerpop that nudged against the prevailing parameters of the genre by adding slightly psychedelic sonic flourishes and cleverly crafted lyrical vignettes. Real Nighttime also marked the first crystalline production collaboration with Mitch Easter, a musical marriage made in heaven that would last until the Loud Family’s 1994 album The Tape Of Only Linda. The next year brought the more "commercial" Big Shot Chronicles, which saw their pop melodies fleshed out into a more mature watertight style while reducing the sonic experimentation of Real Nighttime. This established a Scott Miller pattern of an every-other-album alternation between experimental versus commercial (in my opinion, the experimental albums tend to be the stronger ones). In 1987, Game Theory unleashed their masterpiece, the ambitious and highly experimental double album Lolita Nation. The sound is opened up, with spacious, quirky interludes linking compact, punchy songs; Game Theory sprinkled references to its own history alongside at-times surreal sound collages. They throttled back in 1988 for what ultimately ended up being their final disc, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages, a final desperate attempt to rise above "national obscurity", as Scott Miller once wryly referred to the band’s level of popularity. One final album, the tastefully chosen best-of compilation Tinker To Evers To Chance, appeared in 1989. After the tragic hat trick of a career of multiple personnel changes, at times tumultuous interpersonal relationships within the band, and the demise of their record label Enigma, Game Theory imploded in 1990.

The five years that separate 2 Steps From the Middle Ages from P&B&R&T were apparently fertile ones; the songs that Scott Miller presented as his new group’s initial offering astound the listener with their dramatic power and dynamic range of sound. The album immediately establishes itself as a continuation of Lolita Nation; the opening guitar figure quotes both "Here Comes Everybody" on Real Nighttime and "Kenneth, What’s the Frequency?" on Lolita Nation. One further quote before we are ushered into the album proper:

Make me an offer, I don’t waste them now

This quote, as it originally stood in Game Theory’s "Throwing the Election" from 2 Steps From The Middle Ages was a hopeful, cheerful plea to be given a chance. Here, the line sounds as if its singer has his back against the wall; wild-eyed and desperate, the singer realizes that the stakes are that much higher this time around, that this could be his last chance to prove his worth to the world.

And prove it the Loud Family does. Gone is the exuberant desire to please and the optimistic innocence that marked most of Game Theory’s works. The face that the Loud Family presents has seen troubles and pain, and is jaded. The songs are tougher, take-no-prisoners compositions that emphasize the power in powerpop. The leadoff track He Do The Police In Different Voices is a wistful kiss-off to a former lover, sung passionless over a guitar drone. Pop-culture references to the Shondells, the Pixies, and even the Beatles tumble past you. Suddenly, voices swirl around like an aural tornado which drop you into the soaring, thundering declaration of intent Sword Swallower:

I'll swallow the swords like I'm in the center ring
Raise up the roof just like Martin Luther King
I'll sparkle and charm just like Paris in the spring.

The Loud Family announces its presence with authority. Next up, Aerodeliria is a gorgeous psychedelic love song whose ebullience is tempered with just a bit of portent:

Look what we've gotten ourselves in
Over the falls we go
Girl, don't you know what that sound is?
Losses being cut
And mercy being asked
And "Don't hate us too bad.
We didn't know."

Next up is a pair of songs that really need to be listened back-to-back to appreciate the full effect. Self-Righteous Boy Reduced to Tears (oh, did I mention his song titles are curiosities in and of themselves?) is a minute-long prelude in which the narrator, aware of the tough times that have come previously, warns of the dread to follow. This leads up to the album’s finest track, a powerpop masterpiece called Jimmy Still Comes Around. Lyrically, the song is a state-of-the-union of the chemical youth, disillusioned ones living a life of ennui and tired poses. Musically, it’s a thumping, driving guitar rocker, tautly constructed and flawlessly executed. Who would’ve thunk that an Eddie Van Halen-style guitar solo (courtesy of ace guitarist Zachary Smith) would fit perfectly in an alternative song? Basically, this song can’t be improved upon; powerpop perfection along the lines of "Back of a Car" by Big Star (which, appropriately enough, the Loud Family covers on their Slouching Towards Liverpool EP).

By no means is the rest of the album an anticlimax; an incredibly high standard is kept consistently through the rest of the record. Take Me Down (Too Halloo) is a loping, casual tune that doubles as a summer reminisce and a hope for the potential of the future. Don’t All Thank Me At Once is a neat little piece of sonic experimentation that borrows the phrase "No one twisting his arm" from Lolita Nation’s "The Waist And The Knees" and then proceeds to torture the phrase until an acoustic guitar and some mildly intelligible lyrics stop the pain. Idiot Son is a clever tune glazed with effects lamenting the sad state of our environment. I actually continue to be fascinated by a particular image that Scott evokes in the song:

And I saw real estate that I would not call land

So intrigued by this line was I that I actually asked Scott himself about it. He told me that a good portion of his songwriting is taken from images he gets in dreams; this dream image was one of passing some land that had been exhausted of its agricultural resources and existed now only as a financial value, not usable earth. This fit in with the rest of the song’s environmental theme. It was fascinating to have the songwriter himself explain the lyric to me.

Some Grand Vision Of Motives And Irony is a tale of romantic regret in waltz time with some delicate guitar effects. Very few songs have the same end effect as the next batter up, Spot the Setup. Guitars and basses introduce our song’s narrator, a laconic lad who realizes he’s been had. Again, regret plays in the song; the narrator regrets having consistently playing it cool in an effort to always be in control, especially when the occasion may have called for some emotion. He realizes he’s burned himself; he’s been fooled. Fantastic messenger to a funky message. Inverness is a spring song, bouncy musically but lyrically lamenting lost love.

At this point, those who have the vinyl version (which, incidentally, I do. It's pressed on gorgeous red vinyl.) would flip over for side two, with Rosy Overdrive, a song that starts menacingly and follows through with an incredibly dramatic aural slaughter. From the beginning bass doodles, guitars, and electronic rattlesnakes make way for apocalyptic, thunderous drums and a thrilling keyboard careening through a not-so-typical tale of a woman on the edge of a full mental crackdown:

Rosy low-fi, no preventive cures
"Threw my youth away - now I want yours!"
Lovers too embarrassed to turn blue
What's the girl with a gun in her hand supposed to do?
Say, "It's not me. I was in 1982!"

After a middle eight that slays you and a final chorus, Zachary Smith (or Scott Miller, or maybe both) lays down a guitar solo so amazing that it leaves all other comers in the dust. Astounding, another masterpiece is born!!!

After the sonic marauder that is Rosy Overdrive, Scott Miller achieves something that I’ve only seen Richard Thompson do so beautifully; he turns deep soul torment into a thing of beauty, with Slit My Wrists. While the title might put some folks off immediately, the song is as blissful as a baby’s breath; gentle guitars weave lacy harmonies over a subtly shimmering melody. The message is not an advocacy of suicide, but rather a perceptive snapshot of temporary hopelessness, I think.

Regrouping, the Louds pick up the pace with Isaac’s Law, a breezy romp written by Zachary Smith which gently reminds you to smile as you accept your fate. The Second Grade Applauds All Day is a cheerful dirge celebrating absurdism and abandon, featuring not only a plethora of ostentatious sonic effects, but also the best example of screaming eight-year-olds since the Bar Kays’ "Soul Finger".

Last Honest Face starts gently with Cocteau-Twinnish ladies swooning, two guitars carrying on small talk between your left ear and your right, and an appropriately persistent keyboard hook. The alchemy that this song conjures really speaks volumes about the quality of the production of both Scott Miller and Mitch Easter. The song is a regretful write-off of a former lover, its minor key underscoring the lament of lost innocence.

Even You comes in with airy, spacious layers of mellotron, guitar, bass, and drums over its verse, adds some grit to its chorus, and gradually builds during the middle eight to an excellent thumping showcase for the massive drum sound that only Jozef Becker can bring. Ballad of How You Can All Shut Up is the equivalent to the sonic collage on Lolita Nation’s third side. This song directly alludes to a generous portion of Game Theory’s past song titles and lyrical reference points, as a robotic voice drones on with approximate pronunciations of the cryptic segments of LISP-language computer code that make up Lolita Nation’s collage title. Just in the nick of time, Give In World is a cheery cap off of optimism for the future, containing a verse that is a cleverly sung approximation of a Bob Dylan scene in a Pennebaker film, the one where he drops card after card with slogans. There’s even a cryptic bonus track!!!

I can only imagine that Scott Miller is just as disillusioned as I am that P&B&R&T isn’t mentioned among rock critics’ top 10 lists of the most significant albums in rock music. Surely this album is just as important as Sgt. Pepper’s, London Calling, Shoot Out The Lights, and Let It Bleed; one can only hope that with a little more press, the Loud Family’s stature can rise above "national obscurity" into "undisputed rock gods". This album is overdue; here's hoping the world comes around to realize: THIS IS THE BEST CD IN THE WORLD!!
There you go. The Loud Family never did rise to any sort of level above respected cult favorite, and Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things is still criminally under-appreciated. But with Big Star's #1 Record/Radio City, P&B&R&T is still my favorite album of all time.

And I'm actually still somewhat proud of what I wrote almost ten years ago.

For a lot more information about both the Loud Family and Game Theory, please check out two rather lengthy interviews with Scott Miller in Glorious Noise magazine, one from 2003 and one from 2006.


Blogger Jeff said...

Testify, brother. My favorite record of the past 15 years, and I own a ton of records. I try to push P&B&R&T on everyone I know who may be into music even a little bit. I cannot see how anyone hearing this music wouldn't be floored by the aural candy melodies and deep layers of sonic and lyrical brilliance.

September 16, 2008 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DJM: What a lovely post to re-visit after all this time! (Google brought me here in my quest to know more about the late Alex Chilton, but that's another story.)

One minor correction: It is true that three of us (Zachary Smith, Paul Wieneke and I) had formed the rather low-key "This Very Window". But to say that Scott joined our band has the tail wagging the dog: we each individually signed on with Scott's Game Theory. After a few rehearsals, he decided that the energy and sound of the band was different enough to warrant a new name, whereupon he suggested "Loud Family", and it was Good.

To this day, I'm proud and honored to have worked with Scott Miller on his projects.

- r dunbar poor

March 24, 2010 8:53 AM  
Blogger DJMurphy said...

Wow, it's cool as hell that you read this, Mr. Poor. The clarification has been duly noted above within the main text of the review itself.

Thanks again for being part of such an amazing album (meaning Plants..., that is). The Tape Of Only Linda is an awesome album as well; someday, I hope I get the chance to hear what This Very Window was like musically.

March 25, 2010 9:00 PM  

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