When Liars dropped They Were Wrong So We Drowned earlier this year, the white-belted dance punks who grooved to They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top were baffled. Liars essentially removed the groove, replacing it with a dark, haunted post-punk vision that turned away as many old fans as it won new ones. Listening to the Chromatics' sophomore effort, Plaster Hounds, I couldn't help but feel a sense of déjà vu. With the year not even half over, we have another album that is an equally challenging foray into post-punk, although the payoff isn't quite as satisfying.
Where Liars bury their influences under a veneer of noise and outright weirdness, the Chromatics are upfront about them. The inner artwork directly cribs from the Fall's Dragnet and the final track, "Program", is a cover of the enigmatic Silver Apples' classic song. Rhythmically, the Chromatics clearly have some Lee "Scratch" Perry and Maceo Parker records on hand, as bassist Nat Sahlstrom and drummer Ron Avila (also of grindcore outfit Holy Molar) lay down some seriously thick grooves.
The curious thing about Plaster Hounds is that, despite the solid rhythm section, the songs feel strangely empty. To call guitarist Adam Miller's playing minimal would be an understatement. His work is relegated to nothing more than window dressing to the dense sounds coming from the other players. Miller and Sahlstrom are left to fill out the songs on the vocal duties they share. As neither singer is particularly engaging, and the lyrics are not particularly memorable, much of the time spent listening to Plaster Hounds is waiting to wade through the murky swamp of drum and bass to find a snatch of a melody.
Though not in abundance, the melodies are here. Compared to the rest of the album, "Garden" is an out and out rocker. The second song on the album is lyrically twisted ("In the garden / I like a chrome rat / A Shiny tailbone / And a poached beak") and brimming with urgent guitars, but it's unfortunate that this song doesn't set the pace for the rest of the album. "Three Hearts (WASP)" is a percussion-led, funk throwdown that will have the most jaded hipster grooving and should have !!! looking over their shoulder. However, much of the album is spent taking soulless journeys into ominous post-punk territory. Tracks like "Jesus" and "Monarch" are so weighted in their intentions that they create an emotional vacuum. It is somewhat interesting that the track offering the most fun on Plaster Hounds is the Silver Apples' cover. "Program" is incessantly fun, melodically inventive and intelligent. Closing the album with a track that is polar opposite of everything that came before it is puzzling. Are the Chromatics sending a musical middle finger to their fans, or finally deciding to let loose and have a little fun?
Plaster Hounds is the second confrontational post-punk album to emerge this year. Unlike Liars' equally funny and brilliant effort, the Chromatics' seems to be running through the motions. There are moments when Plaster Hounds offers flashes of a band stepping beyond their influences, but they are few and far between. If anything, Plaster Hounds is the work of a band in transition.