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A Voice Cries in the Wilderness: Prepare the Way of the Plains

Posted by June 4th, 2007 No Comments »

thumb_theplains_mansuitfinal
The Plains – The Boy in the Mansuit

It’s difficult to pigeonhole Seattle band The Plains. Since their 2002 debut, On Earth as It Is in Heaven, they’ve mostly been slapped with the “alt-country” tag. On their long awaited and admirable follow-up, The Boy in the Mansuit, they’re out to illustrate that much more rages beneath the surface of that hopeless moniker. Sure there are a few
moonlight cotillion ballads, like “You Never Let Me Believe” and “Pasts
Like Circles,” some gorgeous pedal steel provided by Garth Highsmith
(Chuckanut Drive) and moments of angelic, lilting lead and backing
vocals. But the mood here is as easily suited to treading an ally of
urban decay as wandering a country road at dusk. Either one works; by
dawn you still end up shaking your fist at the moon, the Marathon sign
and the girl who trashed your heart.


theplains_mansuitfinal
The Plains – The Boy in the Mansuit

It’s difficult to pigeonhole Seattle band The Plains. Since their 2002
debut, On Earth as It Is in Heaven, they’ve mostly been slapped with
the “alt-country” tag. On their long awaited and admirable follow-up,
The Boy in the Mansuit, they’re out to illustrate that much more rages
beneath the surface of that hopeless moniker. Sure there are a few
moonlight cotillion ballads, like “You Never Let Me Believe” and “Pasts
Like Circles,” some gorgeous pedal steel provided by Garth Highsmith
(Chuckanut Drive ) and moments of angelic, lilting lead and backing
vocals. But the mood here is as easily suited to treading an ally of
urban decay as wandering a country road at dusk. Either one works; by
dawn you still end up shaking your fist at the moon, the Marathon sign
and the girl who trashed your heart.

The band has grown considerably from that first foray. They’ve
abandoned the wide-open safety of the ground, so to speak, diving
straight into the heart of a Kansas thunderstorm.

Singer-songwriter Aaron Semer, who toiled as a virtual one-man-band on
the debut, affords greater creative latitude to the talented Jon
Killian on drums (Calmer Than You Are) and the stalwart yeoman Josh
Atkins on bass. The results are impressive – the band is tighter and
more focused in some areas, appropriately loose and trusting in others,
the kind of reliance and confidence in each other that most bands only
dream of.

It’s a testament to the band that some of the rawer, less structured
material still sounds so tight. I’m guessing the absence of structure
in some of the songs is intentional. The end result is a collection of
songs that soar and weave right into one another. The center of the
album, including “Reinvention Song” and “Silverlake” straight on
through to the closer, “Pasts Like Circles,” is simply spine tingling.

Semer, who unabashedly burns offerings at musical altars of everyone
from Harry Nillson to Missy Elliot to Cinderella, is quickly defining
his own sound as a guitarist and voice as a songwriter. All those
varied influences are here, culminating in anthemic post-punk power pop
with some of the best open-ended, reverb-drenched buttrock solos this
side of Thurston Moore or Bends-era Johnny Greenwood. Semer’s vocals,
more textured and showcasing greater range, carry an infectious twang
and honest delivery that’s undeniably Midwestern and so elusive to many
other singers. As in Jeff Tweedy’s or Tom Petty’s best moments, you
can’t help but believe what the guy is saying.

The songs themselves are driven by a need to fill the wide open void of
self-doubt with something…anything. Semer often puts his eye squarely
on Americana, parsing the world through a cracked Mellencamp lens with
the passion and inventiveness of Jeff Mangum. There are some jabs at
religiosity and enough agnostic lyrical undertones to conjure up
questions about Semer’s personal faith, but nothing is overtly preachy.
Religious and romantic idealism isn’t merely bruised from experience so
much as it is pummeled into a new perspective. There are no answers or
life altering promises at stake here, but the exploration is infinitely
more gratifying. – (8/10)


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