Inspired by an elaborate concept, this breakthrough album is a homespun epic of humble origins and unbridled imagination.
Rock Plaza Central is an endearingly different sort of buzz band. Prior to all the unexpected acclaim and success following the self-release of their breakthrough record Are We Not Horses? in late 2006, the band had gone largely unnoticed outside their hometown of Toronto for several years. Sheltered from any attention, they unassumingly eased their way into something spectacular. Inspired by an elaborate conceit and sustained with evocative lyrics and powerful instrumentation, Are We Not Horses? is an outstanding fusion of alt-country earnestness and indie rock absurdity. Without any trace of flaunt or deliberateness, this homespun epic proves as casual in tone as it is ambitious in scope.
The concept behind Are We Not Horses? is arrestingly outlandish. Set in the aftermath of a brutal war between humans and angels, the album explores the thoughts and emotions of sentient, six-legged, robotic warhorses contending with existential despair. The comic book-sized proportions of the narrative are admirably bizarre, but its focus grows fuzzy as the album unfurls. Perspectives shift frequently and the distinction between robot, rider, angel, observer, and author gets vague.
That ambiguity is hardly a shortcoming. Avoiding explicit description, these songs lay out enough detail and imagery to create a rough sketch with plentiful space for embellishment. A pensively introspective mechanical animal may not be the most obviously empathetic protagonist, but by albums end Are We Not Horses? is sure to have tears welling and fists aloft in raucous salute.
While a lot of that impact relies on lusciously loose wordplay, the album boasts incredibly strong arrangements as well. Rock Plaza Central prides itself on a casually collaborative approach to songcraft, with all players authoring their own parts oftentimes right in the studio. Without ever sounding uncertain or improvised, that emphasis on spontaneity sends these songs surging with sparking vitality. Impressive as their performances are, it's hard not to wonder how much bigger these songs could get with a little more concerted attention.
Still, it's nearly impossible to fault the band for failing to hit a mark they never aimed at. However eccentric the ideas behind Are We Not Horses? may be, grandiosity is simply not on their agenda. No matter how outrageous the subject, Rock Plaza Central rocks with such humility and humanity it belies any accusation of thematic contrivance. Such lack of pretension is a welcome contrast from the precocious preening of so many younger artists. Instead, Rock Plaza Central sounds already relaxed in its own creative realm of humble origins and unbridled imagination.