Justin Ancheta can come off at times as a San Francisco-flavored Jack Johnson, but he and his band definitely have a promising start here.
Justin Ancheta's Plant is a fine, unassuming full-length album. His website refers to his music as reggae flavored funk and jazz -- this fits most of the time, with reggae featuring most prominently in the mix. At times he sounds like a San Francisco flavored Jack Johnson - albeit a more permanently relaxed Jack Johnson.
Opening "Forever" paints a slow-burning blues-pop groove with just the lightest touch of reggae hints -- a fine song to spark up some incense and relax in the twilight under the glow of tiki torches. "Truth Existence" continues by setting the tone for the rest of the disc. Ancheta's activist nature is shot through this entire disc -- and while the very word can summon images of treacly, over-wrought hand-wringers, he mostly avoids this trap. "Better Predicament" is a gleefully overflowing kaleidoscope of instrumentation -- still gently rolling along, but rocking a bit harder than anything before it. The singing slips into almost rapping at times, but never feels unnatural or forced.
After such an overflowing (yet still tasteful) mix, more plaintive moments like "Outer Space" and "Wander" are a welcome relaxation to the whole proceeding. "Wander" even manages to switch with ease between the same rapid-fire delivery found in "Better Predicament" and a more slowed-down vocal style. If you're more in it for the faster-moving numbers, there are still few to be found here, but "Counter Culture" pulls off the nifty trick of "rocking" and having a full-fledged sound, even as it rides a delicate reggae beat along -- complete with full throated vocals, trumpet interludes, even the occasional scratch. Once again Ancheta shows a knack for the everything and the kitchen sink folk track. Too much and it gets cluttered, but with this one he pulls off the just right effect. "Simmer Down" is a funny title for a track so bubbly and over-flowing with energy, but still a fine track just the same. It gets a bit fat near the end with the trumpet solo -- highlighting an issue found elsewhere on this album.
The solo excursions and mid song breakdowns show clear-headed, intelligent playing, but sometimes linger on just a bit too long. They are the kind of free-form experimentation that is far more easy to appreciate in a live setting -- on a studio disc it is too easy for these moments to sound like padding. Album closer "Livin' It Up" has one foot in the blues, the other in jazz-folk, and is a fine track to end things on -- not just for the lively energy, but the way it makes the listener leave wanting more.
Plant wins largely on the organic feel and lush sound. Too often artists who create this kind of music fall back on studio trickery to "liven up" the performance. Often, it has the opposite effect, and a lively, organic performance sounds like just another studio creation. Still organic, but too polished. It wins and fails, as sometimes the recording captured is too raw -- a testament to how hard it is to capture live-sounding music on CD -- and yet none of these songs give the impression they would sound bad live. Overall a promising start, and balancing out the approach on future albums should only see better things to come for this band.