Chicago's vast baroque pop collective summons every instrument known to man in its fourth and best full-length album, working them jigsaw-like into complicated, colorful patterns.
Head of Femur, the Nebraska-and-Chicago-based baroque pop outfit with three core, eight satellite and seemingly hundreds of cameo players, has never had much interest in minimalism. Its first album, the intermittently sublime Ringodom or Proctor, shoehorned three or four songs into each multi-instrumented cut. This debut CD was ushered into the world in its entirety by a band of 24 musicians on a tiny Chicago stage. And following Hysterical Stars, when Head of Femur toured with equally populous Architecture in Helsinki, they could have rented the Partridge Family bus and still jostled elbows and knocked knees. More is always more rather than less to these guys -- more people, more instruments, more song ideas, and more joy. With their fourth album, Great Plains, the parts all fit together in a seamless, logical way that finally drives home, I think, what Head of Femur has been going for all along.
Essentially, this is a caffeinated, giddy melodic pop that is bristling with intelligence, but softened by whimsy. Their first album included an Eno cover, "The True Wheel" from Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, and this still seems like a very solid reference point for pop that is still pop no matter how convoluted it gets. You will hear bits and pieces that remind you of all the challenging pop bands -- the Beatles, the Beach Boys, ELO, the Move, and the Elephant 6 contingent -- but filtered through an exuberant, band-geek sort of competence. This is not the kind of band where you can get away with half-assing your instrument. Every tone rings out bright and clear and assured.
After a brief opening dalliance with Beach Boys harmonies, horse-clopping percussion, and sunny trumpet melodies ("Whirlaway"), the album gets its groove on in the title cut, "Great Plains", a piano-banging, brass-flourishing, swaggering pop tune with dizzy harmonies and an inescapable hook. It is overstuffed, in the way that a really comfortable chair can be overstuffed, but not at all chaotic. Every element of the song seems to work towards the same headlong end. Nothing seems pasted on or secondary. And this song simply sets the standard for the rest of a very strong album. Head of Femur has always had big ideas, but with Great Plains, the execution catches up to the ambition, and everything functions like a complicated clockwork.
A handful of songs here are joy in a jar. The driving, uptempo "Jetway Junior", the luxuriant pop strut of "Leader & the Falcon", and the all-hands, quasi-live singalong of "Open the Door, Lucille" are about as uplifting as large ensemble music can be. That said, the faster songs are more fun than the slower ones, which occasionally bleed over from orchestrated pop into musical comedy extravaganzas. Your attention may wander during "By the Red Fire", a pretty-enough ballad sweetened with strings but never really pushed over the top.
Great Plains is accessible enough to catch fire right away, but complicated enough that you'll want to listen a few times before passing judgment. Still, however many layers, however many ideas these musicians lay on, there's a pop unity to this record that finally nails the Head of Femur aesthetic. They've been trying their complex art for a while now -- and every effort has been enjoyable -- but this is the one that makes it pay off.