Part of growing up involves becoming aware of one's own sudden, unexpected legitimacy. As a youth, prominent public figures as Grownups, and popular wisdom tells us that we'll get there 'eventually', whenever that is. Until then, we're just kids; our passions are 'activities', our talents 'hobbies'. And then we reach our 20s and it all comes to a head: professional athletes, actors and actresses, Playboy playmates and musicians are suddenly our age. Out of nowhere come these young folks, to whom no one paid attention prior to entering their respective adulthoods, playing guitars and throwing balls in hoops and posing naked, just like real Grownups. Initiation into their club gives one access to that most coveted of perks: the authority to be taken seriously in one's chosen field. It's terrifying and awesome, and most are a bit hesitant to enter into it, but still, anyone who's anyone is deep in its throes.
Which brings us to The Plastic Constellations, a quartet of excited Minnesotans whose members, at a scant 22-years-old each, are the same age as this critic. They're my peers, these guys. We're all young, teetering on the brink of Grownup-hood, and the opportunity to present our work to a 'real' (read: 'adult') audience has for too long been just beyond our grasp. The Plastic Constellations' new album, entitled Mazatlan (I looked it up... it's a town in Mexico), bares the mark of a band that has been toiling endlessly in youth-imposed obscurity (the band formed when its members were all of 14), anxiously awaiting its imminent induction into the Big Time. As a consequence of all that elbow greasery, the band sounds as focused and assured as any more seasoned rock act, though in the place of an older group's 'maturity' the Constellations possess 'youthful exuberance', that most ephemeral and priceless of rock 'n' roll virtues. They temper that unending enthusiasm with tastefully sloppy musicianship and a craftsman's ear for pop melodies. They play like kids, they sing like kids, but The Plastic Constellations' rawk just as consistently as their more aged peers.
The Plastic Constellations' sound breaks down into a compelling formula: anthemic, asymmetrical songs crammed under the three-minute mark, angular post-punk guitars, a light dusting of screamo choruses, and the real shocker... hip-hop. In fact, if it weren't for the band's clear love of the '90s indie rock canon (echoes of Superchunk, Archers of Loaf and Fugazi abound), there would be an exceedingly thin line between the Plastic Constellations and Canadian punk-pop-hop snots Sum 41. These seemingly incongruous elements -- spazzy indie guitar rock and white-boy hip-hop -- are rather jarring at first, almost irritating even, but a once-through listen to Mazatlan makes all intentions clear, as what initially comes off as posturing reveals itself to be a genuinely unique rock voice.
All four bandmembers contribute vocals, their nigh-indistinguishable styles melding rapid fire wordiness and end-over-end rhyme schemes, ultimately landing somewhere between Ian Mckay and Rakim. Each verse builds tension, lines overlapping and intertwining, alternating between singing, bellowing and barking; the choruses disperse that tension, hesitating and then exploding with consistently surprising musical ideas and catchy, almost-radio-friendly hooks. Mazatlan's opening track, the singalong call-to-arms "We Came To Play" sounds like a statement of purpose and call to arms all in one. "We wrote this / time to follow through" sing all four Constellations at once, "we came to play / it's what we do." Indeed, Mazatlan sounds like the following-through of a musical project eight years in the making: vibrant, genre-bending rock 'n' roll galvanized by the sheer love of performance, music that says "thank you" back at its appreciative audience.
It should be noted that The Plastic Constellations also bring back an oft-overlooked trick, the extended instrumental breakdown (EIB). These pummeling, proggy jams close several of Mazatlan's songs (including the melancholic "East Cleveland," whose bombastic outro features some of the loveliest, loudest playing I've heard in a while) often unexpectedly displacing a second repetition of the chorus. In less capable hands, such a maneuver might be seen solipsistic; when the Plastic Constellations pull out the EIB, it's a distillation of years of sweaty weeknight rehearsals in thirty seconds of pure spasmodic fury.
And so here's to Minnesota's Plastic Constellations, who most likely graduated in their high school's class of 2000 as I did, and whose future looks as hopeful and complex as the band's own knotty brand of 21st century rock 'n' roll. Welcome to the Grownup club, guys. I've been having a blast, and from the sound of Mazatlan, you have too.