Plants and Animals
It used to be that rock and roll was rebellious. If you wanted to tick off your parents or worry your teachers, you put on a black T-shirt and cranked up some noisy guitar music. It was an efficient fuck-you to the world, or a quick cry for help. Whichever. But that was decades ago. Now rock and roll — particularly classic rock, Baby Boomer jams — has become the music of childhood for many. It's what our parents played in the minivan as we drove to soccer practice. So how do you rebel against the music of your with-it jeans-wearing weed-smoking product-of-the-counterculture parents? How do you assert your uniqueness among your peers? You get into abstruse, odd-time-heavy, free jazz and weirdly hypnotic contemporary classical music, the kind of stuff that repeats itself for what feels like days. The kind of things that only the most committed can endure. You could say that that was part of the path of the excellent Canadian band Plants and Animals.
These guys — now operating out of Quebec, but with ties to Nova Scotia — grew up listening to Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. Then they went off to school and started playing complex and off-putting instrumental music influenced by ecstatic jazz revolutionaries and minimalist composers. Not the kind of stuff you put on at a social get-together. That was their way of rebelling. The trio released its first EP in 2004.
"We put out an instrumental record with long, rambling 15-minute songs inspired by Steve Reich," says drummer and vocalist Matthew "Woody" Woodley, who spoke to the Advocate recently from his home in Montreal.
Now the band, which started out with more of a post-rock vibe, is playing something that sounds very much indebted to classic rock. It's a little like a return to childhood tastes, a coming home, maybe even a sign of moving past rebellion. Call it post-post-rock, if you must.
"We gradually evolved from an instrumental band into what we are now," says Woodley. "Singing started to seep into it. We started to get back to simplicity, forgetting that desire to be obscure."
The band's 2012 record, The End of That, isn't obscure. It is surprisingly funny in places, especially for a record that's about a painful breakup and the confused muddle, and occasional moments of clarity, that follows the crumbling of a relationship. It's hard for a band to both rock and elicit laughs without somehow detracting from the perceived seriousness of what they're doing. Plants and Animals can have a Stonesy-swagger and slither, with a hint of lizard-like menace. They bring to mind Urge Overkill, another rocking trio that deployed some of the best tropes of classic rock with a wink. The songs even have what you could call subdued soul — summoning emotion and passion, as opposed to slacker aloofness or mere rocker attitude.
Here are a few lines from the title track of the newest record: "Wait, don't go, you distract me so/You make it so easy to hide in the scenery in your vintage jewelry/like some fucked-up bumble bee heading for the potpourri/ of the ladies' room/ Wait, don't go, you turn me on so/With your bee-sting lips and your pepper-grinder hips."
These words aren't entirely sung, but they're not rapped or just spoken either. The syllables are drawn out and tugged.
Woodley says that band is mindful of "seeing the lightness" even though the album is about "the end of making certain mistakes." The band likes to deal "with things that are honest and real and difficult without being too heavy about it, or without brooding."
Despite classic rock's associations with bombast and excess, Woodley points out that rock is rooted in the blues, which generally avoids heavy-handedness and over-doing it.
"Blues is not an overstated music by any means," he says.
Somehow the clarity and focus on simplicity has helped the band distill their sound to its essence, always stripping away what's not needed, without for a second sounding austere.
"It's something that we're conscious of," he says. "It's easier to see spots now where overplaying comes into the picture. It's just not necessary. You don't need unnecessary notes, just like you don't need unnecessary words when you're writing. It's like the Strunk and White of music."