The Soft Plastics
Paper Bag Records, 2020
Review by Kent Manthie
Frog Eyes, the British Columbia-based indie art-rock favorite of critics and their own cult, which broke up in 2018 seems to be back in some form; frontman, Carey Mercer, just after the breakup, did make an elliptical comment to another blog writer, Matt Bobkin. Quote: “We have a plan, when everything’s done, to sit down and talk, to see if anyone wants to come back together or not, but to be able to do it on the terms of, ‘This is a new band.'” with the emergence of Soft Plastics (As Shakespeare famously wrote: “A rose by any other name is just as sweet”…) after the 2018 breakup of Frog Eyes, one can note, in the above quote, Mercer, for one, seemed to be anticipating, with his prescient quote, listed above, a listlessness that would follow the breakup and, so, was already, in 2018, thinking about the future and, in particular, his future in music. Two years later and we’ve got the brand new album by a (semi-) reconstituted Frog Eyes, but in a new guise, as Mercer mentioned in the quote, “…to be able to do it on the terms of ‘This is a new band'”. Prescient, indeed! Melanie Campbell and Shyla Seller, both from Frog Eyes joined up with Mercer, who, like before, was the main songwriter and 5 Dreams is the result. One of the great things about 5 Dreams is that it’s got a fresh sound, I was hard-pressed to find anything that sounded like something else. Nothing on here seemed derivative. Looking forward is the way to do it. To become an archetype, one must rise above the average, the ordinary, the been-there/done-that and with a vitality and with the twin sparks of creativity and originality. There’s more to it, of course; just read Jung’s works. Sure there are the synchronicities that everyone encounters in daily life. Most of the time, they passed unnoticed or unexamined. But synchronicity is not an excuse for reusing old lyrical or musical tropes from ages gone by. In music, the way I think about it, it’s the archetypes that set the standards for what to be; the icons, the pioneers, the ones who basically invented certain formulas or styles. People like Bob Dylan, John Cage, Richard Strauss, and even The Beatles, for, aren’t we still, some 50 years after The Beatles broke up, hearing comparisons to certain stylish pop innovations that usher in a new paradigm? That is an archetype. Unforgettable icons that, through their paradigm shifting music, their pushing the envelope and forcing their audiences to not just passively sit in chairs or mindlessly dance on the floor (though, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!) There’s a certain catharsis in letting yourself go and letting the throbbing beats and pulsating sounds take over while your body is in a trance-like state, gyrating and twisting and undulating about. But vis a vis an archetypal figure or presence, there’s more to it. Sure, you can plug in to Clubland and be carefree for the duration, but when it’s something completely new and unprecedented there’s really nothing you need to do (or even can do) about it: while one hemisphere of your brain is wigging out, your more analytical, learning side is, often without one’s even being conscious of it, taking all this in, trying to process it – until it finds that there’s no existing site or receptor into which to put the switch. This is the presence in your mind of the archetype, a looming tower, brand new, not only to you but, no doubt, to most, if not all of the party people
This lovely paradigm-changing debut, 5 Dreams, opens with the lovely “St Tosh the Actor”, a pleasant, dreamy, spaced-out tune. The first “single” off the new album is “Rope Off the Tigers”, a tune with somewhat of a post-punk sensibility to it, but not the post-punk of, say, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Wire or Gang of Four. No, “Rope Off the Tigers” is neither, for example, minimalist, like Wire or Joy Division and not the dirge-like nor the “…Works with a minimum of steel”; the death trip, in color with cartoonish touches and Daniel Ash’s wonderful guitar as well as David J’s thumping, truly exquisite bass that is Bauhaus.
“Rope Off the Tigers”, while it may owe some of the influences of Mercer, which brought it about…well, I guess “post-punk” may be something to stick in the box labeled “genres”. Since the song doesn’t burn any particular post-punk songs or bands, I just couldn’t leave that “post-punk” comment alone. I guess, in the end, there’s much more to “Rope Off the Tigers” than just “post-punk allusions. The song starts off with this twangy western guitar sound, which set up a great, unforgettable hook which is repeated throughout the song, as well as variations on the theme.
In fact, that’s the way I see the album as a whole, e.g., all the songs. I usually don’t have to try at all; if I’m listening to a new song on a new album and it happens to have some of the same grooves or beats or polytechnics. Things like the aforementioned usually spark some memory of a particular song by a certain band or a song that the new tune reminds me of.
Anyway, getting “Rope” out of my system, I’m glad that this is the tune they chose to lead off as a single. That is one way of getting Soft Plastics music into the ears of neophytes, not familiar with SP. I don’t know what the decision process was when they decided on that tune for a single. Did it seem more “accessible” than some of the other tunes? Did that aforementioned hook, introduced at the beginning, figure into the decision? Whatever it was, I’m glad they did pick “Rope Off the Tigers”.
OK, so some other tunes to mention here – and there are quite a few worth checking out. “Andre” is a fascinating song that manages to, even in its mellowed out vibe, show off a more complex version of their vision. The next song, “I Dreamed of Cold Green Seas” keeps the tempo and style of the album going in a direction that includes some surprising hooks, lyrics as well as interesting instrumentation.
Carey Mercer has a real gift for songwriting. He seems to dig deep into his own reservoir of experience in order to craft songs that, while they may be at least partly autobiographical, still are accessible enough for the listener to enjoy the songs from the first. But as one keeps on listening one will keep discovering new bits and pieces that escaped him in previous encounters.
5 Dreams’s last cut is their brilliant coup de grace, “Wyld Thyng”. An Eight minute opus that is just a beautiful, lush, windswept, horn-infused dramatic lovely song . The horns have added a special touch: they add a HUGE amount of blissed-out prettiness to the song. Toward the end of “Wyld Thyng”, Soft Plastics seem to draw out as much as they can from the horns. Combined with studio effect, etc, they are committed to make this as long as they can with beautiful-sounding, angelic horns and, as the song gets closer and closer to its end, the horns (whether real ones or synthesized ones) keep coming at you but it gets thinner and less focused, bringing it home with short bursts of arpeggios and sounds melancholy, as things start to splinter and then re-fuse and so on, keeping us hooked in to that locked groove. But such beauty!!
Finally, after an extended, emotional climax, “Wyld Thyng” seems to die a natural death and in doing so, also brings a close the album in full. The whole album is a delight. And getting to “Wyld Thyng” or even “Rope Off the Tigers”, for that matter, is worth the wait, since you’re not really “waiting”, you’re being mind-fed a collection of music whose originality is one of those rarities among albums, especially these days, after just about everything has been tried and done. –KM