PLANTS AND ANIMALS at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, February 21), 9 pm. $12. 416-531-5042. Rating: NNNNN
Listening to the Plants and Animals’ rootsy rustic jams on their new Parc Avenue (Secret City), it’s difficult to believe that this urbane folk threesome from Montreal was working as a cool and calculating math rock band not long ago.
In fact, the whole idea of singing over top of their neatly interlocking instrumental progressions never crossed their minds until they began crafting the current album in the apartment studio of moustached guitar picker Warren C. Spicer.
That was two years ago, and judging from the plinking of the autoharp and lonesome twang of the pedal steel and fiddle flourishes that characterize the richly orchestrated tunes of Parc Avenue, much has changed in the world of Plants and Animals.
“Although I’d grown up listening to folk music,” explains Spicer from his apartment at Parc Avenue and Bernard, “after I picked up the guitar I got more into jazz and rock. I didn’t really get back into folk and roots music until I met [Montreal singer] Katie Moore at a party. We started playing together, and she encouraged me to sing and introduced me to the country/bluegrass scene in town. All that slowly altered the way we approach music in Plants and Animals.
“In the process of making this album, we really figured out who we are as a band. We learned how to sing, how to harmonize, how to write songs with lyrics and how best to record them to create an album."
“There was no grand concept at the beginning. We’d try out ideas we thought were great but didn’t work once we recorded them. Each time we finished a song we all liked, it was kind of a shock.”
What makes Parc Avenue so engaging is that the thrill of discovery experienced by Spicer and his pals Matthew “The Woodman” Woodley and Nicolas Basque is palpable. You’re with them as they break new ground. There are certainly telltale signs of their touchstones along the way – a small fragment of a melody reminiscent of something by John Lennon, a guitar lick from Ali Farka Touré or a distinctly Dylanesque chord sequence – but it’s all recontextualized into something uniquely Plants and Animals.
Every tune on Parc Avenue rolls out as if it were handmade on a front porch while the sun was shining. It’s got that warm, easy-going vibe rarely heard on albums made after 1974 and almost never in the digital age.
“Someone called what we’re doing now ‘post-classic rock,’ and the music of the late 60s did have an influence, particularly late-period Beatles, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, specifically in our approach to keeping the layering and post-production to a minimum and maximizing the musicianship. Something special happens when the three of us play together that would not be there if we recorded everything in tiny little pieces and put them together at the end.
According to Spicer, the decision to document their performances on tape rather than hard drive was less a matter of sonic preference than recording aesthetic. It’s about memory and loss.
“I’ve got no problem with people recording digitally, but analog recording gives you more of a hands-on feel. There’s a certain enjoyment you get in completing a good take, and then another in hearing it played back.
“The shared sense of achievement in that moment stays with you. It’s important for me to have the memory of that wonderful feeling conjured whenever I hear the recording. I don’t have the same experience when listening back to music recorded digitally.”
You have to wonder whatever Plants and Animals are feeling any Polaris pressure since label mate Patrick Watson won the prize last year and Miracle Fortress were short listed. Evidently not so much according to Warren C. Spieer.
What was the concept behind the crazy cover shoot for the Parc Avenue album?
Five reasons why Plants and Animals will be candidates for the 2008 Polaris prize:
1. They’re based in Montreal but sing in English, not French.
2. Like many Polaris voters, they’re white, middle-class males with facial hair.
3. What they play could pass for indie rock.
4. They record with stringed instruments other than guitars.
5. They’re signed to Secret City, label of 2007 Polaris winner Patrick Watson and runner-up Miracle Fortress.