While Plaid has always excelled at percussive melodic sounds, the new album makes such natural, effective use of assorted xylophones, bells, and glockenspiels that it seemed an additional multi-instrumentalist had to be responsible.
In the opening bars of Greedy Baby a cacophony of voices answer their phones in confusion, fruitlessly seeking human contact on the other end. The sounds are the result of hacking software that automatically checks phone numbers for vulnerable modems (a "War Dialer"), but they could also serve as an acknowledgement of where the last Plaid effort, Spokes, faltered slightly. Despite haunting use of guest vocals on the opening track, that album often seemed impenetrably mechanical -- music for and by machines. Here, though, we have the opposite: when I heard the first leaked tracks from Greedy Baby, co-credited to Plaid and Bob Jaroc, I assumed the collaborator to be a live musician, for a release similar to recent collaborations between Keiran Hebden and Steve Reid. While Plaid's Andy Turner & Ed Handley have always excelled at percussive melodic sounds, the new tracks made such natural, effective use of assorted xylophones, bells, and glockenspiels that it seemed that Jaroc had to be the multi-instrumentalist responsible.
Not so. Jaroc turns out to be, in fact, a video artist (more on that in a moment) and the beautiful, convincing melodies are pure Turner and Handley. This shouldn't be surprising, given the smart, rapid melodies they've arranged for such instruments in the past, but here, as showcased brilliantly on "The Launching of Big Face", they seem more confident, giving such melodies more room to breathe free from the distractions of drums and background noises, reveling in the complexity and interplay of the notes alone. While the track does eventually build into full drums and synth washes, the initial xylophones remain the backbone and focus. This melodic attention holds in many other examples as well: "I Citizen the Loathsome" builds from harpsichord and flute (to a startling wash of guitar noise that eventually overwhelms the song) while centerpiece "The Return of Super Barrio" relies on the interplay of steel drums and something somewhere between vibraphone and jack-in-the-box. While the techniques are similar -- I suspect that the "instruments" are still largely synthesized -- it's a surprising contrast to the at times centerless percussive assaults on Spokes. That previous album's sense of foreboding and menace do carry over, but Greedy Baby makes these impressions decidedly more intimate.
Let me summarize the other salient details. Things that Plaid continues to do as well as ever: keeping melodies fresh with odd, irregular timing; holding off on revealing the underlying chord structure during a melodic build, so that when it finally enters, it recasts the feel of the other components; changing up tempo and tone suddenly together as one at key moments. Things that have been improved over other recent Plaid: warmer, more natural instrumentation; greater variety between tracks; stronger sense of cohesion and purposeful progress in the individual songs. Relatively minor criticism: the songs are more cohesive, but also longer, so that cohesion occasionally gets stretched to unnecessary repetition; only eight new tracks after the interesting, but relatively unlistenable "War Dialer"; it's nice that the melodies get the space they deserve, but the percussion has little opportunity to really break out, even when it perhaps deserves to.
Overall, a commendable effort. But that's not the whole story: as previously mentioned, this isn't a Plaid album, it's a Plaid and Bob Jaroc album. Faced with the question that any high-profile electronic act needs to answer at some point -- how to occupy live audiences when you're essentially playing your computer -- Cex started rapping, Prefuse 73 and Carribou pushed aside their laptops in favor of real instruments, and Plaid, in an increasingly common move, began projecting accompanying films. To that end, they began collaborating with Jaroc, a visual artist who has provided a video for each track on the album, included as accompanying DVD completely mixed for Dolby 5.1 surround sound. So this is less like the Keiran Hebden and Steve Reid albums, and more like Hebden's Everything Ecstatic part 2 DVD, which displayed videos of his most recent Four Tet work. But whereas the Four Tet release prodded fans to shell out a second time for (essentially) the same body of work, here, the DVD is included in the album price, a much more satisfactory arrangement.
This is fortunate because the videos, though an interesting visual counterpoint to the music, wouldn't really hold up on their own. The pieces seem to have been made primarily for live use (Plaid is currently embarking on a tour of select venues, including iMax theatres), where they would complement but never distract from the music, apparently still the primary focus. As such, they are more montages of images (haunting shots of the Tokyo skyline and a dentist's office, highways spooling by, blurry lights) or supercharged visualization plugins (bizarre, intricately coordinated insect/ Rorschachs, pulsing and geometric flower shapes) than anything resembling a narrative. The notable exception here is "The Return of Super Barrio", which, on the DVD, includes dialogue and sound effects to complete the clever cartoon story of Super Barrio, a real Mexican wrestler who became the voice of the common people, and who, here, combats personifications of his country's woes (the media, big business, the influence of America) in an allegorical rooftop wrestling match. It's a compelling little piece, contrasting the rest of the DVD with its passion and pertinence, and for once letting the music become a soundtrack to something greater. On the whole, though, Jaroc's films are not something one sits down specifically to watch; they are simply a (welcome, bonus) embellishment upon Plaid's music.
And ultimately, despite the co-credit, it's a Plaid album. Which is to say that it's solid effort from one of the more consistent acts in electronic music today (and yesterday -- they've been with us for a full 15 years now, even without counting long-shelved pre-Plaid monikers), which comes packaged with rewarding additional material. I never did get to hear the album in full 5.1 surround mix, but it seems likely that with the level of attention Turner and Handley pay to their sounds, they'll have made good use of the extra track separation. While the DVD material doesn't elevate Greedy Baby into any sort of new, multimedia album format, it also certainly doesn't detract, or serve as a replacement for musical interest, or in the case of the Four Tet DVD, constitute an underwhelming separate release. If this work sets a precedent, let's hope that it's to make DVD video material an included part of more albums that, most importantly, already stand on their own merits.