"You know, it's not bad, but couldn't he get someone else to sing?
I like the horns a lot, but it's kind of over the top."
These were the comments from my two friends about three hours into our trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, when I popped Plush's new album, Fed, into the CD player. Mind you, up until then, they had subjected me to the Mr. Deeds and Clueless soundtracks and had genuinely enjoyed each of them, but even I had to admit that their criticisms weren't entirely without a kernel of truth. Plush, in case you're unaware, is essentially a solo vehicle for Chicago-based singer-songwriter Liam Hayes -- a man who can perhaps be called both an eccentric and a visionary in the same breath. In the nearly 8 years since the band's inception and through its various studio and live incarnations, Hayes has produced exactly two full-length Plush albums. The first, 1998's More You Becomes You, is a slight 28-minute lullaby, all piano and vocals, save for a fleeting French horn on the penultimate track. This new album, however, licensed to Japanese micro-indie After Hours this past February and due for American release sometime late this year or early next, represents a hairpin turn in both style and ambition. Minimalism has been replaced by sensory overload. Falsetto has been abandoned in favor of a rough-hewn timbre. Efficiency traded for patient sprawl.
Some might accuse Hayes of being willfully difficult. After all, none of the compositions on this album require such grand arrangements. On songs like the title track, Hayes boldly piles on the instruments until the song just about bursts at the seams. For Hayes, it seems that too much is never enough. Yet I would argue that his approach is absolutely indispensable to the album's success. The string and wind accompaniments are crucial; these are the elements that help distinguish Fed. It wears its ambition on its sleeve, rarely choosing restraint over creative abandon.
But Hayes is also fully capable of pulling off a compact pop song. "Greyhound Bus Station" sounds distantly related to Bob Dylan's early output -- only without the dour, curmudgeonly posturing -- as Hayes blissfully croons, "I don't care if I don't got much cash to spend / 'Cause I got plenty of time for the both of us to lend". There isn't anything else on Fed quite as immediately ingratiating. Most of the other songs, however, impress with their sheer size and scope. "No Education" creeps forward with its sultry strings, leading to an unlikely guitar and horn climax. "What'll We Do" features an even more audacious instrumental backdrop -- as the guitar weaves its way among woodwinds, vibes, and horns. To his credit, Hayes prevents the whole thing from imploding by keeping the instruments distinct and lucid. No matter how many things are going on at once, Fed never turns to sonic mush. These songs are brimming with ideas, but even at their most cluttered and busy, there's a certain clarity to Hayes' madness.
I must admit that Hayes' vocal approach on Fed is sure to polarize listeners. His gravelly growl is, at best, an acquired taste. At worst, it ruins the songs. Those few who treasure his first album under the guise of Plush will almost certainly be taken aback by the change on a first listen. Rather than relying on the brittle falsetto that served him so well on that solo piano record, Hayes has gone for a rougher, folk-inspired delivery. He warbles, his voice cracks. You either find it endearing or you wish he'd shut up altogether. Likewise, Hayes does have a tendency to get carried away with his own ideas. The songs rarely simmer down, even when they're at their most elemental level -- hence my friends' characterizations of "over the top." Sometimes the record becomes so lush and full of life that it's deadening. It can be damn near impossible to get a fix on the melodies driving the songs.
So to an extent, I agree with my friends' criticisms. At times, Hayes' voice is detrimental to the smooth melodic finishes of these songs and he does occasionally go overboard in pursuit of the ultimate crescendo. But I also believe that if you can get past the record's obvious shortcomings, there is quite a bit of beauty to be found. No one that I'm aware of is making music like Liam Hayes right now. Fed exists in a world of its own, hermetically sealed to outside influence. It's a singer-songwriter affair to be sure, but it never succumbs to familiarity. You won't find Hayes riding the alt-country bandwagon or employing the post-modern production tricks that have recently become so fashionable among the folk and alt-rock cognoscenti. Even the artwork, which features Hayes amid stacks of canned goods, is delightfully oblivious to considerations of coolness and accessibility. That may not make Fed terribly marketable in a musical climate obsessed with trends and genre tags, but the honesty and care that flow through these compositions more than makes up the difference.