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The Loud Family * Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things * Alias, 1993THE LOUD FAMILY

PLANTS AND BIRDS AND ROCKS AND THINGS

When was the last time an album grabbed you by the cranium and wouldnít let go? Dramatic, intelligent, oblique yet accessible, impenetrable yet engaging, both sonically and structurally surreal yet familiarÖ the Loud Familyís first album Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things earns all of these sobriquets over the course of its 19 tracks. Named after a throwaway line in the song A Horse With No Name by soft-rockers America, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is an astounding artistic achievement both in terms of compositional creation and sonic scope. Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (henceforth P&B&R&T for brevityís sake) takes intelligent power pop vignettes and proceeds to stir in a generous helping of aural experimentation to come up with an hourís worth of thinking-manís rock.

First a little backstory: Scott Miller was the leading light in Game Theory, a hooky, intelligent Northern California band started in 1982. Although their earlier releases never lacked portions of brilliance, the songs tended at times to be a tentative marriage of pop and prog. They hit upon a winning sound with 1985ís Real Nighttime LP, melding James Joyce with Alex Chilton to create joyful, exuberant powerpop that nudged against the prevailing parameters of the genre by adding slightly psychedelic sonic flourishes and cleverly crafted lyrical vignettes. Real Nighttime also marked the first crystalline production collaboration with Mitch Easter, a musical marriage made in heaven that would last until the Loud Familyís 1994 album The Tape Of Only Linda. The next year brought the more "commercial" Big Shot Chronicles, which saw their pop melodies fleshed out into a more mature watertight style while reducing the sonic experimentation of Real Nighttime. This established a Scott Miller pattern of an every-other-album alternation between experimental versus commercial (in my opinion, the experimental albums tend to be the stronger ones). In 1987, Game Theory unleashed their masterpiece, the ambitious and highly experimental double album Lolita Nation. The sound is opened up, with spacious, quirky interludes linking compact, punchy songs; Game Theory sprinkled references to its own history alongside at-times surreal sound collages. They throttled back in 1988 for what ultimately ended up being their final disc, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages, a final desperate attempt to rise above "national obscurity", as Scott Miller once wryly referred to the bandís level of popularity. One final album, the tastefully chosen best-of compilation Tinker To Evers To Chance, appeared in 1989. After the tragic hat trick of a career of multiple personnel changes, at times tumultuous interpersonal relationships within the band, and the demise of their record label Enigma, Game Theory imploded in 1990.

The five years that separate 2 Steps From the Middle Ages from P&B&R&T were apparently fertile ones; the songs that Scott Miller presented as his new groupís initial offering astound the listener with their dramatic power and dynamic range of sound. The album immediately establishes itself as a continuation of Lolita Nation; the opening guitar figure quotes both Here Comes Everybody on Real Nighttime and Kenneth, Whatís the Frequency? on Lolita Nation. One further quote before we are ushered into the album proper:

Make me an offer, I donít waste them now

This quote, as it originally stood in Game Theoryís Throwing the Election from 2 Steps From The Middle Ages was a hopeful, cheerful plea to be given a chance. Here, the line sounds as if its singer has his back against the wall; wild-eyed and desperate, the singer realizes that the stakes are that much higher this time around, that this could be his last chance to prove his worth to the world.

And prove it the Loud Family does. Gone is the exuberant desire to please and the optimistic innocence that marked most of Game Theoryís works. The face that the Loud Family presents has seen troubles and pain, and is jaded. The songs are tougher, take-no-prisoners compositions that emphasize the power in powerpop. The leadoff track He Do The Police In Different Voices is a wistful kiss off to a former lover, sung passionless over a guitar drone. Pop-culture references to the Shondells, the Pixies, and even the Beatles tumble past you. Suddenly, voices swirl around like an aural tornado which drop you into the soaring, thundering declaration of intent Sword Swallower:

I'll swallow the swords like I'm in the center ring
Raise up the roof just like Martin Luther King
I'll sparkle and charm just like Paris in the spring.

The Loud Family announces its presence with authority. Next up, Aerodeliria is a gorgeous psychedelic love song whose ebullience is tempered with just a bit of portent:

Look what we've gotten ourselves in
Over the falls we go
Girl, don't you know what that sound is?
Losses being cut
And mercy being asked
And "Don't hate us too bad.
We didn't know."

Next up is a pair of songs that really need to be listened back-to-back to appreciate the full effect. Self- Righteous Boy Reduced to Tears (oh, did I mention his song titles are curiosities in and of themselves?) is a minute-long prelude in which the narrator, aware of the tough times that have come previously, warns of the dread to follow. This leads up to the albumís finest track, a powerpop masterpiece called Jimmy Still Comes Around. Lyrically, the song is a state-of-the-union of the chemical youth, disillusioned ones living a life of ennui and tired poses. Musically, itís a thumping, driving guitar rocker, tautly constructed and flawlessly executed. Who wouldíve thunk that an Eddie Van Halen-style guitar solo (courtesy of ace guitarist Zachary Smith) would fit perfectly in an alternative song? Basically, this song canít be improved upon; powerpop perfection along the lines of Back of a Car by Big Star (which, appropriately enough, the Loud Family covers on their Slouching Towards Liverpool EP).

By no means is the rest of the album an anticlimax; an incredibly high standard is kept consistently through the rest of the record. Take Me Down (Too Halloo) is a loping, casual tune that doubles as a summer reminisce and a hope for the potential of the future. Donít All Thank Me At Once is a neat little piece of sonic experimentation that borrows the phrase "No one twisting his arm" from Lolita Nationís The Waist And The Knees and then proceeds to torture the phrase until an acoustic guitar and some mildly intelligible lyrics stop the pain. Idiot Son is a clever tune glazed with effects lamenting the sad state of our environment. I actually continue to be fascinated by a particular image that Scott evokes in the song:

And I saw real estate that I would not call land

So intrigued by this line was I that I actually asked Scott himself about it. He told me that a good portion of his songwriting is taken from images he gets in dreams; this dream image was one of passing some land that had been exhausted of its agricultural resources and existed now only as a financial value, not usable earth. This fit in with the rest of the songís environmental theme. It was fascinating to have the songwriter himself explain the lyric to me.

Some Grand Vision Of Motives And Irony is a tale of romantic regret in waltz time with some delicate guitar effects. Very few songs have the same end effect as the next batter up, Spot the Setup. Guitars and basses introduce our songís narrator, a laconic lad who realizes heís been had. Again, regret plays in the song; the narrator regrets having consistently playing it cool in an effort to always be in control, especially when the occasion may have called for some emotion. He realizes heís burned himself; heís been fooled. Fantastic messenger to a funky message. Inverness is a spring song, bouncy musically but lyrically lamenting lost love.

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At this point, those who have the vinyl version would flip over for side two, with Rosy Overdrive, a song that starts menacingly and follows through with an incredibly dramatic aural slaughter. From the beginning bass doodles, guitars, and electronic rattlesnakes make way for apocalyptic, thunderous drums and a thrilling keyboard careening through a not-so-typical tale of a woman on the edge of a full mental crackdown:

Rosy low-fi, no preventive cures
"Threw my youth away - now I want yours!"
Lovers too embarrassed to turn blue
What's the girl with a gun in her hand supposed to do?
Say, "It's not me. I was in 1982!"

After a middle eight that slays you and a final chorus, Zachary Smith (or Scott Miller, or maybe both) lays down a guitar solo so amazing that it leaves all other comers in the dust. Astounding, another masterpiece is born!!!

After the sonic marauder that is Rosy Overdrive, Scott Miller achieves something that Iíve only seen Richard Thompson do so beautifully; he turns deep soul torment into a thing of beauty, with Slit My Wrists. While the title might put some folks off immediately, the song is as blissful as a babyís breath; gentle guitars weave lacy harmonies over a subtly shimmering melody. The message is not an advocacy of suicide, but rather a perceptive snapshot of temporary hopelessness, I think.

Regrouping, the Louds pick up the pace with Isaacís Law, a breezy romp written by Zachary Smith which gently reminds you to smile as you accept your fate. The Second Grade Applauds All Day is a cheerful dirge celebrating absurdism and abandon, featuring not only a plethora of ostentatious sonic effects, but also the best example of screaming eight-year-olds since the Bar Kaysí Soul Finger.

Last Honest Face starts gently with Cocteau-Twinnish ladies swooning, two guitars carrying on small talk between your left ear and your right, and an appropriately persistent keyboard hook. The alchemy that this song conjures really speaks volumes about the quality of the production of both Scott Miller and Mitch Easter. The song is a regretful write-off of a former lover, its minor key underscoring the lament of lost innocence.

Even You comes in with airy, spacious layers of mellotron, guitar, bass, and drums over its verse, adds some grit to its chorus, and gradually builds during the middle eight to an excellent thumping showcase for the massive drum sound that only Jozef Becker can bring.  Ballad of How You Can All Shut Up is the equivalent to the sonic collage on Lolita Nationís third side. This song directly alludes to a generous portion of Game Theoryís past song titles and lyrical reference points, as a robotic voice drones on with approximate pronunciations of the cryptic segments of LISP-language computer code that make up Lolita Nationís collage title. Just in the nick of time, Give In World is a cheery cap off of optimism for the future, containing a verse that is a cleverly sung approximation of a Bob Dylan scene in a Pennebaker film, the one where he drops card after card with slogans. Thereís even a cryptic bonus track!!!

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I can only imagine that Scott Miller is just as disillusioned as I am that P&B&R&T isnít mentioned among rock criticsí top 10 lists of the most significant albums in rock music. Surely this album is just as important as Sgt. Pepperís, London Calling, Shoot Out The Lights, and Let It Bleed; one can only hope that with a little more press, the Loud Familyís stature can rise above "national obscurity" into "undisputed rock gods". This album is overdue; here's hoping the world comes around to realize: THIS IS THE BEST CD IN THE WORLD!!