[4 June 2008]
Just when you thought Roch Voisine was all Montreal had to offer, along comes Plants and Animals. The power trio of drummer Matthew Woodley and vocalists/guitarists Nic Basque and Warren Spicer are about to set your world right again with a mind-blowing blend of ambient folk and orchestral post-rock jamming the likes of which was popularly thought to have gone extinct with bellbottoms. However, this isn’t a work of slap and dash opportunism just because the francophone scene is, as evidenced by Polaris Prize-nominated label mates Patrick Watson and Miracle Fortress. Plants and Animals are going about it the right way for their style: they’re taking their sweet time.
Transplants to the home of Les Habitants via Halifax, this plucky trio road tests much of their material, boiling it down to the core essence of each piece. This patience translates clearly into the vibe of Parc Avenue, their debut full length, and its teaser With/Avec EP, especially in the “Fairie Dance” epic that appears on both releases. When they jam, though, they can bring some sizeable rock balls to the table, and a wash of confident relaxation flows through it all, like the Beta Band’s 3 EPs, but more Canadian. It’s a delicate balance, but they pull it off as if they’re not even trying.
“A L’orée Des Bois” sums this feeling up spectacularly. It’s there betwixt the interplay of acoustic and electric guitars, chiming off each other, while a nice, round bass reminiscent of latter day Sloan and an arguably hip-hop drumbeat plugs away underneath. The lyrics go on to name-check the album title while self-reflexively explaining the circumstances around the recording of their debut, when World Cup Football fans cheered every goal wildly on the street below Spicer’s apartment/studio. The last minute of the track kills everything except the electric guitar, and replaces it all with a sullen piano that lands as softly as the French-speaking child who brings the track home. Funnily enough, you can faintly hear Basque whispering the lyrics to the child line for line. That little nothing, purposely or not, raises the song’s self-awareness without sacrificing its newfound ethereality.
There are some obvious classic rock influences that pop up from time to time too. “Mercy” rides a stellar Santana Latin-funk groove, complete with schoolyard chorus—which spells it out for you—to the last minute and a half. Then, an early Genesis or ELP prog groove led by an elevating synth bass and grandiose soloing takes over and sees the journey to its conclusion. “Keep It Real” follows suit with the history of UK prog condensed into its first two minutes, leaving the second half coasting on a piano and vibraphone. “Guru” is another vintage Santana flavour, only upstaged by a Beatles raga that launches off the traveling beat to battle itself. These homages are never a substitute for vision, though. Among all the names I have mentioned, history will remember them as equals.
The aforementioned “Faerie Dance” is all the proof you need to know these boys are serious. It begins with a sly country slide slowly raising the temperature alongside a female vocal chorus, with the drums following their lead and the battling guitars becoming more intricate. Suddenly, a raunchy blues riff erupts, casting the direction towards a mammoth piano and scratchy strings far too depressing for Billy Joel. That eventually gives way to a Sleepy Jackson-like, morose, alt-country sing-along that culminates the festivities. It’s three songs for the price of one, and none of it is stretched out to ridiculous, pretentious lengths.
For a debut, this is an amazing feat. The lyrics are blunt and relatable, and their song construction is arguably on par with some of the greatest names rock music has ever known. They deserve all the praise and success available in this age of MP3 apocalypse. The Montréal scene has itself a new champion.