Out in the world, plants and animals are things we tend to impinge upon. They’re all out there in the world, moving around in their familiar circles, and we build cities out to meet them, or pave walkways through their forests, or domesticate them into pets or stick them in pots on our front porch. The point is: we move into their territory.
But the band Plants and Animals? Well, that’s a whole other story. They force themselves upon you. They spread out and take over, pulling you into their frayed, expansive sound. Their 2008 album, Parc Avenue, traveled the dusty roads of Crazy Horse with all the wide-eyed theatrics of Meatloaf. It soared, dipped into valleys, spread out and took its time — and we loved every minute of it.
Their sophomore release, La La Land, does not take the same trajectory. The path through this album is a much more direct one, steeped in head-on rock and roll. The guitars are big and fuzzy here, the rhythms singular and driving. In one way, it eschews the oddball antics of its predecessor — which helped its soCal ’70s feel gain a touch of the new — but also it manages, in its finest moments, a subtler expanse that works well.
It’s pretty clear with the seething opener, “Tom Cruz”, that things are a bit different on this record. The band actually sounds like a three piece here, where as on the last record it sounded like an entire Canadian province could have been in on the songs. But let’s leave that album behind for a moment. La La Land succeeds on different, perhaps more modest terms, by clearing out the clutter a bit. A few instruments make a whole lot of noise on this record. “The Mama Papa” is a lean rocker, guitars echoing out as the bass snaps off each percussive note. Warren Spencer’s vocals have a hard-edged urgency, but here — and all through the record — there’s a confident swagger to his singing that adds a whole lot of charm to the record.
“The Mama Papa” falls in line with a handful of songs that really hold up the record. Closer “Jeans Jeans Jeans”, the tangled “Swinging Bells”, and the desert-dust rock of “Undone Melody” are all high points here, combining the straighter paths of La La Land with the irrepressible size we’ve come to expect from these guys. These songs are also proof that this is a guitar record all the way, and the fellas achieve different textures in each, from the frazzled dream of “Swinging Bells” to the triumphant reverb of “Jeans Jeans Jeans”, these are the songs that mark what’s working for Plants and Animals on this new record. The songs are immediate, but they also make space for you to live in, and you will live in them eventually, and find all the sonic secrets they have hidden.
Those songs also hold up a middle of the record that gets a bit lost. Starting with the near-catchy “American Idol” — which could be anthemic, if the chorus melody didn’t seem a beat off — the exploration we expect turns to searching, and the searching can be a bit slow. The funk-lite of “Kon Tiki” rides smoothly enough, but it feels like it’s waiting to change into what it really is, and it never quite does. “Game Shows”, meanwhile, wants the same stretched-out feel of “Undone Melody”, but the mix of instruments is just a touch too thin. The threadbare doesn’t suit them here, and the strings and quiet piano don’t build the song enough to fill out its five minutes.
It would be easy to see this record as a sophomore slump. It’s simpler — at least at first listen — compared to its ambitious and successful debut. But there’s some other sort of ambition on La La Land: the ambition to push towards something new. That road is always a tough one to travel, and while they lean into the occasional rut, they find more than they lose on this record. Plants and Animals are still stretching, still trying to swell around us, and pull us into their world. On this record, they’re just a little more up front, and little less theatric, about it.